Commentary: Cyclists observed wearing USOC-issued masks upon arrival
Castigate USOC for making them out to be scapegoats
August 20, 2008 8:00 AM
Martin Bernetti/Getty Images
Mike Friedman, left, and Bobby Lea were 16th in the men's Madison yesterday.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BEIJING -- Frustration, anger and enormous disappointment poured from Mike Friedman when the topic turned to the United States Olympic Committee.
"They threw us under the bus," the cyclist from Peters said. "They completely hung us out to dry."
That's exactly what the USOC did. It failed to stand behind its athletes in a "mask scandal" that, in fact, the USOC helped to create in reaction to Beijing's air-quality issue.
Friedman and his partner in the Velodrome event called the Madison, Bobby Lea, a Penn State graduate from Toptown, Pa., finally got to vent yesterday. They waited until after they competed (they did not earn a medal) to say what needed to be said about the ugly situation in the days just before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Games.
"They should have taken more responsibility -- maybe publicly supported us and behind the scenes slapped our wrist," Lea said of top U.S. Olympic officials. "It's hard to say what kind of a toll that could have taken, but, for sure, our first five days at the Olympics were terrible."
It has been worse for Friedman, an outgoing sort who is accessible because he has a blog. He estimates he has received more than 15,000 hate e-mails from around the world.
"It definitely took away from my Olympic experience," Friedman said. "I lost a lot of sleep. I read every one of those hate e-mails."
The USOC should be sharing at least some of the heat for what happened.
Upon landing in Beijing, Friedman, Lea and teammates Sarah Hammer and Jennie Reed put on the high-tech, pollution-fighting masks. They were designed under the USOC's direction and contain replaceable carbon filters. When pictures of the four walking through the airport hit the Internet and airwaves, some saw it as an insult aimed at China and the Beijing Olympic organizers.
"It was never a protest," Friedman said. "[Instructions with the masks] told us to wear them getting off the plane, at the airport, whenever we could. And we did. We had no idea we would be the first athletes coming off wearing them. We went past 12 USOC representatives who never said to take it off."
In a subsequent USOC news conference, chairman Peter Ueberroth spoke of the athletes embarrassing China. He noted that the U.S. owes thanks to China because it helped save the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics -- which Ueberroth oversaw -- by not honoring the Soviet boycott. And he emphasized that the USOC did not give the masks to the athletes, but to the individual sports governing bodies, which distributed them to about half the Americans competing in China.
It's true the cyclists got the masks from USA Cycling, but Ueberroth distanced the USOC at the expense of the middle man and sacrificed the underling athletes. USOC CEO Jim Scherr followed the company line.
"It wasn't the best judgment at the time, and the athletes understand that now," he said. "We believe that this will be, hopefully, the last incident of this kind."
The cyclists understood. They issued an apology. The sentiment -- they said they were sorry for any offense and simply were trying to take precautions, not make any political statement -- was genuine, but the way things were handled upset them.
"It showed me that the USOC separates themselves" from the athletes, Friedman said. "They made it more of a story when they said, 'We're going to make you guys apologize.' They forced us to. We weren't trying to offend the Chinese, but we weren't sorry that we wore the masks. The way they just strong-armed us, the way they showed us no support after they told us to do something is just really hard for me to get a handle on."
Lea can't understand why the USOC didn't own up to its part in issuing the masks and suggesting their use.
"I was really upset with the way that we were treated by the USOC," Lea said. "The USOC spent a couple years and a lot of money making those masks."
USOC officials could not be reached last night.
Friedman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that he intended to wear the mask, and he and Lea had every reason to believe they needed them. When they were in Beijing in December for a competition, they struggled with the city's air pollution. Friedman had burning eyes; Lea had worse problems.
"I got sick within 36 hours of being on the ground," Lea said. "I had a sore throat right away. I had a lung infection pretty soon after. I was paranoid of having the same thing happen again [at the Olympics] and was quite relieved when we got our track manual from the USOC that detailed that we were getting these masks in processing and it said the best thing to do was to wear them on the plane and in the airport."
As it turns out, most days since the opening ceremony have been fairly clear, a relief to Friedman and Lea.
The USOC wasn't wrong to make sure its athletes had the best protection possible in case the city's air pollution became a problem. It was most definitely wrong to let its athletes down, make them stand alone, while taking the high road.