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Published: Friday, 8/8/2008

Saving face (masks)

IT SHOULD have been the other way around. Instead of American cyclists apologizing to Beijing Olympic organizers for arriving in China's capital city wearing face masks, it should have been Beijing apologizing to the athletes for the dangerous smog that hangs over the summer games.

But lest their Chinese hosts be embarrassed by the attention paid to Beijing's world-class pollution, U.S. Olympic Committee officials hurried to smooth over the minor mask affair by producing four contrite U.S. cyclists. Despite reportedly being upbraided by their superiors, USOC chieftains insisted that no one had pressured the athletes to apologize.

Right. The cyclists released a mea culpa statement strictly of their own volition. It said they never meant to cause a stir by showing up in the protective gear and did not intend to make an environmental or political statement by donning smog masks as soon as they landed at Beijing airport.

Right. Of course they did, given the generally pristine condition inside the airport as opposed to the notoriously polluted air outside. But no doubt the athletes, like many others traveling to the main Olympic venues in northern Beijing, resent the fact that they have to compete in a city still shrouded in smog despite last-minute anti-pollution measures to improve air quality.

Years of ignoring the suffocating pollution that regularly chokes the Chinese capital can't be rectified overnight just by removing cars from the streets or closing down factories for the duration of the games. Breathing Beijing air can be harmful, which is why the USOC itself issued smog masks to athletes to protect their lungs.

Around 200 American athletes are believed to have brought a mask to Beijing with them. As Michael Friedman, one of the masked cyclists, told the New York Times: "When you train your whole life for something, dot all your i's, and cross all your t's, why wouldn't you be better safe than sorry?"

Why wouldn't you safeguard your health to give yourself a competitive advantage when hundredths of a second could be the difference between a gold medal or fourth-place finish? And why would you ever apologize for taking prudent precautions just to save face for China and pretend its polluted capital is anywhere near meeting World Health Organization standards?

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