By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 6 -- Four U.S. cyclists who were photographed wearing anti-pollution masks while arriving at Beijing International Airport on Tuesday offered a joint statement of apology Wednesday to organizers and the Chinese people.
The athletes, all competitors in track cycling, emerged from their flight wearing the black filtration masks that were designed by USOC scientists for non-competition use during the Summer Games, which begin with Friday's Opening Ceremonies.
USOC officials were dismayed when photos of the athletes by the news agency Reuters circulated Tuesday. USOC chief executive Jim Scherr called wearing the masks in the airport "overly cautious" and not the "best judgment." The masks, officials said, were designed for use at the Olympic Village or around Beijing on days of poor air quality.
"Following our arrival on Tuesday, we offer our sincere apologies to [Olympic organizers], the city of Beijing, and the people of China if our actions were in any way offensive," cyclists Michael Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed said in the statement. "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 [organizers] or countless others who have put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing."
Even while they were still being developed months ago, USOC officials recognized the sensitivity of filtration masks and the possibility they could be construed as offensive, yet they wanted to ensure their athletes breathed clean air throughout the Games. USOC scientists created the masks, which officials say include a simple filter.
Scherr said the USOC offered the masks to all of its Olympic sport national governing bodies, but some decided its athletes would not need them. Of the nearly 600 members of the U.S. delegation, Scherr said, about 200 athletes received them through their sport governing bodies.
"About one-third of the team have masks and we anticipate, hopefully, they won't have to use them," Scherr said.
Scherr said Steve Roush, USOC chief of sport performance, met with the four cyclists Wednesday morning and told them their actions had been interpreted as offensive. Scherr and USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth said, however, that they did not demand that the athletes apologize.
"We're not chastising anybody," Ueberroth said. "They came forward on their own volition. You never want to go to somebody else's place and cause embarrassment."
Said Scherr, "They were very eager to take the right action."
Though China has taken extraordinary measures to try to reduce pollution, including closing factories, limiting the number of cars on the roads and halting construction, a thick white haze blanketed the city Monday and Wednesday.
China's Ministry of Environmental Protection called the air quality on both days excellent, but experts have questioned those reports and the athletes in town have expressed puzzlement at the change from the relatively clear, sunny days Tuesday and over the weekend.
"These are elite-level athletes and they want to have the best opportunity to participate at their peak form," Scherr said.