Cyclists Say U.S. Olympic Panel Bullied Them

Four U.S. Olympic cyclists who wore masks in Beijing and then apologized have said they were berated by the U.S. Olympic Committee. They say the panel threatened to expel them from the games if they didn't apologize quickly.

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Remember those Olympic cyclists who wore breathing masks when they got off the plane in Beijing? They want an official with the U.S. Olympic Committee fired. According to the athletes, the official unfairly berated and threatened them for wearing the masks. NPR's Tom Goldman explains.

TOM GOLDMAN: The four bike racers, Sara Hammer, Jenny Reid, Bobby Lee, and Mike Friedman landed in China three days before the opening ceremony, a time when thousands of journalists were hungry for anything newsworthy. When the four athletes disembarked at Capitol International Airport wearing breathing masks, in part to combat Beijing's air pollution, they became news. Early the next morning, they were summoned by U.S. Olympic Committee executive Steve Roush.

Ms. SARA HAMMER (U.S. Olympic Cyclist): We called it a meeting. It wasn't really a meeting because all it was was pretty much one-sided.

GOLDMAN: On a conference call yesterday, Sara Hammer said Roush verbally blasted the four Olympians.

Ms. HAMMER: You guys were a disgrace, were embarrassing, and you have two and a half hours to make this apology.

GOLDMAN: Or face possible expulsion from the Olympics. Normally, an athlete ombudsman is present at meetings like the one between Roush and the athletes to help facilitate, but on this occasion, the U.S.O.C. didn't alert the ombudsman beforehand. The four cyclists said they didn't get to see the final version of the apology before it was sent to the media on their behalf.

It read, in part, we deeply regret the nature of our choices. Our decision was not intended to insult those who put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing. It said the U.S.O.C. was on edge in China, not wanting to insult the very sensitive host country and hurt Chicago's bid for the 2016 summer games. But the four cyclists insist the U.S.O.C. should have known the masks were merely a safety measure that the committee itself endorsed. Sara Hammer.

Ms. HAMMER: I wouldn't have even known about the mask if they wouldn't have given it to me.

GOLDMAN: In fact, when members of the cycling team went to China eight months ago for an Olympic test event, they took along a U.S.O.C. sports physiologist. Track cycling coach Andy Sparks says the physiologist recommended the following.

Mr. ANDY SPARKS (Track Cycling Coach): Basically, as soon as you step foot in Beijing, wear the mask. That'll exponentially increase your odds of, one, not getting sick, the airport being one of the most germ polluted environments in the world, and on the second level, to protect yourself from the pollution as much as possible. I mean, those were his recommendations.

GOLDMAN: Which the athletes followed at the test event, where there was no fallout, and then again last month at the Olympics. After the incident with Roush, the athletes decided to try to put it out of their minds and focus on their competitions. But Mike Friedman says it was hard.

Mr. MIKE FRIEDMAN (U.S. Olympic Cyclist): I, for one, received numerous, hundreds, actually, of hate messages, to me, personally, and, you know, it's not something I should have had to deal with, especially at the Olympic Games.

GOLDMAN: None of the athletes won medals. Hammer, a world champion and one of the favorites in her event in Beijing, finished fifth. This week, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr sent a letter to the athletes accepting their explanation that they didn't intend to embarrass the Chinese or the U.S.O.C. Scherr also apologized for not making it certain an athlete's ombudsman was present during the meeting with Steve Roush. There was no direct mention of Roush's alleged behavior. The letter ends with this, best wishes for continued success in your training and competition, and please know that the U.S.O.C. stands ready to assist and support you. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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