After months of speculation about how Olympic athletes would react to the air quality problems here, some answers arrived at the airport Tuesday when four track cyclists on the United States Olympic team stepped off their flight wearing masks over their mouths and noses. ( NYT )
They were the first athletes to be seen wearing masks or doing anything proactive to combat the effects of pollution.
The masks they wore were specially designed by and issued to them by the United States Olympic Committee. The U.S.O.C.'s lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber, had advised US Olympians to wear the masks on the plane and as soon as they stepped foot in Beijing.
Two of the cyclists wore the masks on the plane. The other two put on the masks when they arrived at the airport.
"This is really a surprise because I didn't think it was going to be such a big deal," said one of the cyclists, Mike Friedman. "Why we wore the masks is simple: pollution. 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?
"They have pollution in Los Angeles, and if the Olympics were in Los Angeles, we would probably wear these masks, too."
But U.S.O.C. officials were apparently unhappy with that choice, reprimanding the cyclists for walking off the plane wearing the masks, two of the team members said. The two cyclists said they did not remember the name of the U.S.O.C. official.
The Chinese and the International Olympic Committee, including Arne Ljungqvist, chair of the I.O.C. medical commission, have repeatedly said that athletes were not at risk because of the air quality here.
During a previously scheduled news conference Tuesday night, Ljungqvist dismissed the athletes' actions as unnecessary.
"I don't see the need for it, honestly," Ljungqvist said of the masks, although he noted that some athletes with respiratory conditions may need to wear them.
He said that officials were testing the air daily for five types of pollutants, and that conditions had improved since July 27, the day the athletes' village opened. A haze has hung over the city for the past two days, though.
"The mist in the air that we see in those places, including here, is not a feature of pollution primarily but a feature of evaporation and humidity," Ljungqvist said. "I'm sure, I'm confident the air quality will not prove to pose major problems to the athletes and to the visitors in Beijing."