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Athletes ponder wearing masks while in Beijing

Designing protective masks to help athletes cope with the elements is nothing new for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
/ Source: Associated Press Sports

Designing protective masks to help athletes cope with the elements is nothing new for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In fact, just four years ago in Athens, the stakes were much higher: The American federation bought masks to shield its athletes from a possible terrorist biochemical attack.

This time, the smog in Beijing — troublesome but nowhere near as serious a threat — is the worry, and the masks are optional and not designed to be worn during training or competition.

"It's slightly more sophisticated than what you'd buy at your local hardware store before painting your house,'' said USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel. "The benefit for the athletes may be as much psychological as it is physiological. It's peace of mind for athletes who have other things to think about.''

Beijing's choking pollution has been big news in the leadup to the games, scheduled to begin Aug. 8.

On Sunday, the city put into effect its long-planned pollution-control measures, taking cars off the streets, stopping factory production and construction projects. USOC staff members already on the ground in Beijing have reported that conditions are improving slightly.

But the topic of masks, which will have a filter to protect against the most common particulates in the Beijing air, has been discussed for more than a year now.

And New Zealand's athletes have been issued face masks as part of their standard team equipment. Team managers have advised athletes to wear masks around the Olympic village but not during competition.

Some American athletes also are considering wearing masks. But none have changed their competition plans the way Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie did when he said he would bypass the marathon and only run in the 10,000 meters.

"I think I might wear it,'' American triathlete Matt Reed said. "I don't want to dwell on the fact that the pollution's that bad. I think I really need to start just thinking about how hard the race is going to be, not just because of the pollution but because of the heat.''

Indeed, Seibel said the USOC is focusing more energy on helping athletes combat heat and humidity and the 12-hour time change — things that are predictable and more easy to prepare for.

Meanwhile, the federation plans to provide masks to leaders in sports that ask for them. Athletes can ask their trainers and coaches for masks if they want them.

Much has been made of remaining sensitive to the possibility of insulting the Olympic hosts, but the USOC isn't telling athletes to avoid wearing masks on the streets, or even at the opening ceremonies.

"I think the likelihood of that is extraordinarily low,'' Seibel said. "But if an athlete comes to us and says they believe it would be helpful and important, we would not stand in their way.''

Other countries plans:

-The Japanese Olympic Committee will provide athletes with anti-dust masks but is not making recommendations on whether they should use them.

-Germany has no plans to issue masks. "Smog is a theme often discussed by journalists, but our doctors say a much bigger problem will be the heat and humidity,'' said German federation spokesman Michael Schirp.

-Spain's spokesman, Jose Maria Bellon, said no mask is being specially designed and the federation has "confidence in the Chinese government's promise that pollution levels will drop ...''

-Australian medical director Peter Baquie said research there shows no benefit from the masks, but there would be masks available for athletes who asked for them. "The practicalities are issues in terms of heat, in terms of sport compatibility, athlete comfort, athlete self-consciousness,'' Baquie said. "We haven't seen the need to provide them.''

-Gennady Shvets, spokesman for the Russian Olympic Committee said the topic of masks has not been raised. "These people who wear masks, they just want to advertise the company producing the mask, or attract attention to themselves,'' Shvets said.

Seibel said the USOC is optimistic pollution won't become a major issue, but is prepared just in case.

"We know this is a priority for the organizing committee and the IOC,'' Seibel said.

The Americans will have choices and the decisions will vary from sport to sport, and from athlete to athlete.

For instance, the U.S. basketball team, which does its training indoors, hasn't asked the USOC for masks.

Gao Jun, a Chinese-born table tennis player who now competes for the United States but still trains in Shanghai, called the mask idea "nonsense.''

Mark Schubert, head coach and general manager of the U.S. swim team, said USA Swimming asked the USOC for 50 masks about 18 months ago, mainly for asthmatics on the team.

"If they show any symptoms, we'll deal with it,'' Schubert said.

Two years ago, the American softball team took masks to Beijing for world championships. Some players wore them at first, then got rid of them.

"We kind of caused an international uproar,'' pitcher Monica Abbott said.

It's unlikely the softball players will don the masks again this year.

"It is what it is,'' outfielder Kelly Kretschman said. "Everyone is going to be in the same position, breathing the same air. We'll have to deal with it.''