• Thu August 07 2008
  • Posted Aug 7, 2008
Four American cyclists who arrived at Beijing Airport with their faces covered by black respiratory masks have been forced to apologise to the Beijing Olympic organising committee (BOCOG). "Those athletes regret that action and have written an apology to BOCOG on their own behalf," said Jim Scherr, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee. "They now realise and understand how their actions were perceived by the host nation and by the organising committee". He added: "It probably wasn't the most opportune time for these athletes to wear these masks. They were overly cautious." Images and TV footage of the four riders - Mike Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed - were beamed all over the world on the day the International Olympic Committee went on the front foot on the subject of Beijing's pollution problem by claiming it had been exaggerated by the media. The cyclists were later summoned to a meeting with the US Olympic Committee's head of sport, Steve Roush, where they agreed to apologise to their Chinese hosts. Roush said: "Unfortunately, you never want to go to somebody else's place and cause any embarrassment, but in this case I think they did." One of the four, track cyclist Lea, said that he and his colleagues had not intended to make a statement or protest about the air quality. "We didn't realise the impact that wearing the masks would have," he said. "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." Sherr said that around 200 of the 596-strong American team had been issued with masks through their governing bodies but he believed improvements in the air quality in Beijing would mean they would not have to use them. He added: "We would not prevent athletes if they want to wear a mask and feel it is in their best interests to do so. It is their right to do so." The city remained covered with a murky haze for the third successive day today, with temperatures reaching a stifling 34C, though the official Air Quality Index rating of 85 was a slight improvement on the previous day. A BOCOC spokesman said: "The conditions are not unfavourable at the moment and my understanding is that we are not going to be taking any extra measures." Meanwhile, the US government said they would be making a formal protest to the Chinese authorities over their decision to deny an entry visa to Joey Cheek, 29, the American speed skater who won gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics, and who also campaigns against the crisis in Darfur. The US have chosen former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong to carry their flag at tomorrow’s Olympic opening ceremony in a move that could embarrass Sudan and its ally, China. Lomong spent 10 years in a refugee camp after fleeing Sudan as a child.

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