Spain players seek to defuse race row

BEIJING (Reuters) - Spain’s basketball players apologized on Thursday for slit-eyed gestures made by the team at the Beijing Olympics but denied their actions were racist.

A race row threatened to erupt after published pictures showed the Spanish players pulling the skin back at the side of their eyes on a basketball court marked with a Chinese dragon.

“We didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” NBA guard Jose Calderon told reporters after the world champions’ 72-59 victory over Germany.

“We apologize to Asian people if they were offended. Spain is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world.

“Maybe some people in Spain come through like that but in England or the U.S. they have the same problem. We don’t feel we did something bad. It’s wrong to interpret it as racist.”

The Toronto Raptors player added: “It wouldn’t make sense for us to do something hurtful in a country we have to live in for a month.”

Forward Jorge Garbajosa asked what the fuss was all about.

“It’s just a picture,” he shrugged. “If the sponsor says that we have to take it, we will take it.

“If we thought that it was going to offend anybody we would not do it. But if you think this is offensive you’re not thinking in the right way, because it’s not even a joke.

“It’s just because we are coming to Beijing, we have this kind of eyes.”

Spain’s top player Pau Gasol admitted that some of the players had been uncomfortable shooting the advertisement, for Spanish courier company Seur.

“To me it was a little clownish for our part to be doing that,” said the Los Angeles Lakers forward. “The sponsor insisted and insisted. It was just a bad idea to do that.”

Racism has blighted Spanish sport in the past.

Some fans targeted Britain’s black Formula One motor racing driver Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona in February, and racist chants directed at black soccer players have been a persistent problem.

Spain’s basketball coach, however, insisted it was a non-issue.

“I’m not in the picture -- I didn’t see the picture,” said Aito Garcia Reneses. “Everybody is talking about something that I cannot understand.”

Additional reporting by Jason Subler; Editing by Steve Ginsburg