August 6, 2008 / 7:06 AM / 9 years ago

American cyclists apologize for masks

<p>A cyclist from the U.S. team arrives wearing a mask at Beijing airport to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, August 5, 2008.Yves Herman</p>

BEIJING (Reuters) - Four U.S. cyclists who arrived in Beijing for the Games wearing masks to counter bad air have apologized to Olympic officials and the Chinese people.

Track cyclist Bobby Lea said the riders had sent a letter to Beijing Games organizers (BOCOG) to make sure they realized the masks were not meant to be any kind of statement or protest.

"We didn't realize the impact that wearing the masks would have," Lea told Reuters on Wednesday. "From our standpoint it was to take care of a perceived health risk.

"In reality it came across as offensive. We don't want to insult BOCOG or the Chinese public. Had I known it was going to be perceived as an insult I wouldn't have done it."

Lea, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Michael Friedman wore close-fitting masks covering the nose and mouth as they got off their plane.

U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive officer Jim Scherr said about one third of the U.S. team, some 200 athletes, had been issued with the masks before arriving in China but said the cyclists were "a bit overcautious".

He said athletes were understandably concerned about anything that might impair their performance in sports where a few hundredths of a second could mean the difference between gold and fourth place.

"We did not ask the athletes to apologize (and) we would not forbid our athletes from wearing masks," Scherr added.

USED MASKS

Lea said the cycling team used masks when they came to Beijing in December for a test event at the velodrome and it did not cause a stir.

"It was an oversight on our part to think that showing up at the Olympics we wouldn't be so scrutinized," he added.

Lea said one of the reasons he believed there was a health risk in Beijing was because when he came in December he got a respiratory illness and was unable to compete.

He said Olympics organizers had done an "incredible job" cleaning up Beijing and the air since last December.

Beijing's chronic pollution, a source of respiratory illness, has been one of the biggest worries for Games organizers who have had to deflect international criticism over air quality.

The city was covered in haze on Wednesday, two days before the Games begin.

Additional reporting by Doug Hamilton; Editing by Ed Osmond

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