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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 6, 2008 8:50 AM

U.S. cyclists caught in facemask dustup: Whose side is USOC on?

Posted by Ron Judd

Apparently in the eyes of the U.S. Olympic Committee, winning at these Olympics comes secondary -- to honoring the Benevolent and Protective Host City of Beijing and people of China.

That's the message sent loud and clear yesterday after four U.S. track cyclists, including Kirkland's Jennie Reed, committed the cardinal sin of entering the smog-choked Beijing Intergalactic Airport wearing protective breathing masks.

The masks, aimed at curbing Beijing's world-class pollution, were developed by the USOC's own sports physiologists to protect athletes' lungs from particulate matter. They were distributed by the USOC to athletes, who say they were directed to don them immediately upon landing in the city.

In spite of rancid air that was so bad this week that it apparently fouled breathing inside venues such as the Water Cube for swimming, few U.S. athletes had donned the masks, apparently out of fear that it would look bad. So when Reed, et al, were photographed walking through the airport wearing the black masks, it sparked a minor tizzy. Particularly when a USOC official at the scene -- unidentified at this point -- reportedly dressed down the athletes for embarrassing the hosts.


AP Photo/Alastair Grant

JENNIE REED

The cyclists, Reed, Mike Friedman, Sarah Hammer and Bobby Lea, said they were only following protocol. And they had good reason: Reed said she had competed in Beijing before and been literally sickened by the air. She told Velo News in March that the city's notorious smog even fouled the air inside the velodrome at a previous competition there.

"You can see the smog layer (inside)," she said. "I did the World Cup there and got really sick, so it was very bad. In fact, most of the team got sick."

Reed told Velo News most of the team wore masks throughout their stay. "We even started to wear masks on the track, but it's hard to get the high air-flow," she said.

So the athletes were caught off guard by yesterday's hubbub.

"They have pollution in Los Angeles, and if the Olympics were in Los Angeles, we would probably wear these masks, too," Friedman told the New York Times.

But a USOC spokesman seemed to suggest the cyclists had broken some unwritten rule by wearing the masks in a public place.

"We've said all along that it is the athletes' choice whether to wear one if they feel it's necessary," said spokesman Darryl Seibel. "I'm no scientific expert, but walking through an airport doesn't seem like the place where it would be necessary to wear them."

That's right; he's no scientific expert. And ironically, physiologist Randy Wilber, the scientific expert the USOC pays to make these calls told athletes that wearing the masks -- specially designed for the cause -- was a good idea.

Yet the USOC this morning took the amazing step of coughing up a public apology from the athletes. Some important background might suggest why. This is an organization, remember, helmed, by Peter Ueberroth, who reportedly feels he has a lifetime debt to repay the Chinese because they failed to honor the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics, thus saving Ueberroth's beloved Los Angeles Games. And it is the organization currently carrying the water for Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid, which, the paranoid among them feel, will be thrown to the dung heap of history should any American official or athlete do anything to offend the IOC in the interim.)

That gets you to stuff like this:

"We offer our sincere apologies to BOCOG, the city of Beijing, and the people of China if our actions were in any way offensive. That was not our intent.

"The wearing of protective masks upon our arrival into Beijing was strictly a precautionary measure we as athletes chose to take, and was in no way meant to serve as an environmental or political statement. We deeply regret the nature of our choices. Our decision was not intended to insult BOCOG or countless others who have put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing.
There you have it.

You're supposed to believe the apology was a completely spontaneous act by the four -- after they were summoned last night to a meeting with Steve Roush, the USOC's head of sport, according to a report in The Guardian.

"Unfortunately, you never want to go to somebody else's place and cause any embarrassment," Roush told The Guardian. "But in this case I think they did."

It's unclear at this point whether any U.S. track cyclist was actually waterboarded into signing the mea-culpa. But nothing would come as a surprise.

"It probably wasn't the most opportune time for these athletes to wear these masks," USOC CEO Jim Scherr was quoted as saying. "They were overly cautious."

Message delivered: We gave you those masks, but you really shouldn't wear them. To hell with your lungs; it's all about saving China's face.

The incident occurred, remember, at the same time Chinese and International Olympic Committee officials were trying to convince reporters that the air, which looks bad, feels bad, smells bad, tastes bad and breathes bad, really isn't so bad after all, and is in fact just another Western-media-hyped figment of the world's imagination.

The USOC -- buying into this, apparently -- was so busy attempting to smooth ruffled Chinese feathers, it couldn't find time to condemn the benevolent hosts for banning Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek from China. At a news conference Wednesday in Beijing, Scherr dismissed Cheek -- the USOC's "Sportsman of the Year" in 2006, as just another "private citizen who's trying to make his way to these Games."

Sort of makes you wonder: Whose side is the USOC on? China's, or America's athletes?

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Posted by sam silver

11:06 AM, Aug 06, 2008

The lead exercise physiologist for the USOC, Randy WIlber, was quoted in the Jan 24, 2008 New York Times "urging all the athletes to wear specially designed masks over their noses and mouths from the minute they step foot in Beijing until they begin competing."


http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/sports/othersports/24mask.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=Juliet+Macur&st=nyt&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

Posted by Chas

12:31 PM, Aug 06, 2008

I really wonder why didn't Joey Cheek stand up for Native American Independence when he was an Oympian?

Posted by Chas

12:36 PM, Aug 06, 2008

Opps, Joey Cheek's pet cause is not Tibet, but Darfur.

So why didn't he stand up for Darfur when we had repeatedly failed Darfur over the years? Darfur is the negative consquence of American power in Africa, starting with us training John Garang 10 years ago.

Posted by Support our athletes

5:28 PM, Aug 06, 2008

Our athletes should be able to use their masks to protect their health. Their muzzled look is quite appropriate in a country that's suppressing any demonstration of dissent. What's next, China and the IOC banning all face masks?

Posted by Maccabi Japan

5:51 PM, Aug 06, 2008

The original sin was to award China the Olympics. Hoping China to change their human right abusives, media censorship, Tibet oppression and support for Dafur.

The so called Olympic ideal that IOC or the USA officials like Peter Ueberroth speak is to hide the real purpose: Profit for Pansonic, Coke-cola, etc.... and for Chinese pride and image. Mr Ueberroth and the Chinese hosts just want everyone to overlook and forget past as well as current Chinese sins, As to say, "do not worry, just be happy".

Why are we worried about insulting our "Chinese host"? Mr Ueberroth has it backwards, the Chinese are insulting themselves!

Posted by Brad

10:37 PM, Aug 06, 2008

America just never appreciate that China did not boycott 1984 Los Angeles Olympic, as a result a lot of others country not boycotting Los Angels Olympic. Why, why, why you are not able to give at least some respect or ethics. Did you ever learn how to behave?

Posted by Rach

7:11 AM, Aug 07, 2008

I can understand wearing a mask while competing. However per Reuter's photo these folks are apparently wearing masks in the AIRPORT. For u folks who don't know, all international airport (yes even China) are weather & temperature controlled. And YES all air conditioners come with air filters (even the Chinese ones). So WTF is this? What next, shall we get them a Level 4 Biohazard protective suit (the kind u wear if you touch a Ebola virus)? Geez get a brain.

Posted by Tania

8:45 AM, Aug 07, 2008

Wow, this is quite a one-sided column. I've wondered again and again, why can't the media concentrate on the health of Beijing citizens who have to breathe this air EVERY single day of their lives? What are the implications to their health? Are their lungs worth less than those of an American athlete's? I highly doubt that breathing filtered air-conditioned air in the airport is going to damage the lungs of our precious athletes, but hey i'm not a scientific expert, just a medical physician.
The WHO has already issued a statement asserting that if anyone will be suffering health problems, it will be the Chinese, not athletes who will only have to breathe this 'rancid' air for a fortnight.
Get a grip, Seattle, thought we were smarter than this.

Posted by emcb1230

10:01 AM, Aug 07, 2008

thank you for finally recognizing the USOC's fault in this "scandal" Every article I've read abut this incident blames the athletes. Don't give them masks and then chastise them for using them. The USOC is spineless and deserves every bit of criticism leveled towards them.

Posted by Alex Avilez

11:28 AM, Aug 07, 2008

Great article. If, Ron, you are in China, be ready to be deported-not by the Chinese, but by our own "loyal" USOC! So many groups in America find nothing but, "what is wrong with America" and then go overseas and continue to critic our athletes. Shame on the USOC. Besides, they knew the dangers of smog 7 years ago when the IOC awarded China the Games and they also knew the air would never be cleaned up.
Keep writing Ron-tell our athletes that we at home are NOT embarrassed-we are PROUD. We understand what a 1/100th of a second means and they best be at their best. GO AMERICA!

Posted by Jane

2:57 PM, Aug 07, 2008

From the WSJ Elite Athlete Blog, posted August 05, 2008:

"As we stepped off the plane, it was as if we were stepping into a smoke-filled discotheque. Pollution was ubiquitous. The air was thick and nasty; visibility was less than 300 meters around the airport. Iíve never seen anything like it. Despite aggressive government-imposed environmental measures, including limits on cars and manufacturing activity, improvements have been marginal at best. I found the state-controlled Ďpollution meterí on WSJ.com and have been tracking it daily. A light breeze and slightly cooler temperatures are the panacea even the Chinese government canít order. "

http://blogs.wsj.com/chinajournal/2008/08/05/olympian-blogger-jason-read/

Posted by Michael J. Dawson

3:45 PM, Aug 07, 2008

Why do we give a F*$! if we offend the Chinese by wearing masks. Political views aside (another blog maybe), the Beging air quality is S#$@! The statement should be: "After being asked to apologize, I have decided instead to refuse to do so. I will NOT apologize for entering one of the most poorly regulated air quality cities on the planet Earth with respiratory protection. As far as I am concerned, if China is offended, then clearly they recognize they need to clean up; thus it is the Peoples Republic of China who might consider inviting ALL athletes to wear masks if they so choose during the Olympic games. Furthermore, I will be wearing the mask outdoors as I see fit, not for political gain, but for my health, during the remainder of the Games. I also reccommend that the USOC take air quality sample at ground level on each day fo the games to validate air quality for the sake of their athlete's health. Thank you to the USOC for their support, and understanding in this matter"

Posted by Michael J. Dawson

3:47 PM, Aug 07, 2008

I meant BEIJING. Sorry for poor spelling. and typos etc.

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