U.S. cyclists fly into China with face masks

BEIJING (Reuters) - Some members of the U.S. cycling squad arrived for the Olympic Games on Tuesday wearing black respiratory masks, apparently concerned over reports of unhealthy levels of air pollution in Beijing.

About half a dozen members of the team, male and female, were pictured wearing close-fitting face masks covering nose and mouth as they went through Beijing airport. One was identified as Mike Friedman, a track cyclist who competes indoors.

“I suspect it was their choice, you would have to talk to them as to what prompted them to do this,” said Darryl Seibel, chief communications officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“I will say this: I am not a scientist, but in my view that was unnecessary.”

A cycling official tried to play down the incident which some Chinese may see as provocative.

“I don’t believe there was any statement trying to be made,” said Andrea Smith, spokeswoman for USA cycling.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said athletes have the right to express their opinions, but should not do so in the athletes’ village or the sports venues.

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Beijing’s pollution has been a cause for concern for athletes heading for the Games, which begin on Friday.

The IOC has said there was no reason for alarm.

Its medical commission chief, Arne Ljungqvist, said the air quality did not pose problems to athletes or visitors unless they had a specific condition such as asthma.

“I would not carry a mask. I do not see a need for that ... This is not a measure I would recommend unless you have a particular disorder,” he told reporters.

“I would not say that those (people) should not carry protection devices if they so feel, but I honestly doubt about the efficiency ... unless they are carrying a new generation of masks, I don’t know.”

Rapid economic growth in China has increased pollution and brought a deterioration of air quality. Beijing has taken radical measures to improve the atmosphere for the Games, restricting car use and temporarily closing some factories in the capital.

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The IOC has said it would reschedule events that last more than an hour, if air quality was bad on the day.

Ljungqvist said Games organizers, Beijing authorities and the IOC had used strict World Health Organization standards and Beijing was meeting those.

He said the health risks from the air quality in Beijing were only a potential concern for residents and long-term visitors rather than for people attending the Games.

Hot and humid conditions coupled with a haze that covered Beijing on Monday and early Tuesday were sometimes mistaken for pollution, he said.

“The misty air is not a feature of pollution but a feature of evaporation and humidity,” Ljungqvist said.

One Olympic rowing competitor said she rather enjoyed the humidity, comparing it to gliding through a steam bath.

(Additional reporting by Debbie Charles and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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