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U.S. cyclists 'regret' wearing masks at airport

A group of American cyclists has apologized to Beijing Olympic organizers after arriving in China’s capital wearing face masks.
Image: A member of the US Olympic delegation arrives wearing a mask at Beijing's Capital Airport
A member of the U.S. Olympic delegation arrives wearing a mask at Beijing's Capital Airport on Tuesday.Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

A group of American cyclists has apologized to Beijing Olympic organizers after arriving in China’s capital wearing face masks.

Michael Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed released a statement Wednesday, a day after they caused a stir by showing up in the protective gear.

“The wearing of protective masks upon our arrival into Beijing was strictly a precautionary measure we as athletes chose to take, and was in no way meant to serve as an environmental or political statement,” the athletes said. “We deeply regret the nature of our choices. Our decision was not intended to insult BOCOG or countless others who have put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing.”

The host city’s air remains a concern with the start of the games approaching. Beijing has put into effect long-planned pollution-control measures, such as taking cars off the streets, and American officials are cautiously optimistic.

Jim Scherr, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief executive officer, said his organization didn’t ask the cyclists to apologize.

“Those athletes regret that action and have written an apology to BOCOG on their own behalf,” Scherr said. “They now realize and understand how their actions were perceived by the host nation and by the organizing committee.”

Scherr said masks have been issued to national governing bodies that requested them.

“I understand that about 200 of our athletes received those masks through the national governing body, not directly from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” Scherr said. “Hopefully they won’t have to use them.”

About half a dozen members of the team, male and female, were pictured Tuesday wearing close-fitting face masks covering nose and mouth as they went through Beijing airport. One was identified as 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 said Tuesday.

"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.

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.

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