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Unmasking the truth for cyclists in Beijing

Sept. 09, 2008, 10:19 a.m. (ET)

Sarah Hammer tried her best to ignore it, wanting desperately to shut the whole thing out of her mind. That proved next to impossible, when just a trip to the dining hall at the athlete's village in Beijing drew stares and comments from other athletes.

``Hey, where's the mask?'' they would shout out. ``Is the air OK to breathe today?''

There were days it wasn't, but by then that wasn't Hammer's biggest concern.

She had come to China thinking she was going to win a gold medal for her country. Now she was branded as one of the masked four, not sure what she should think anymore.

One walk through the airport changed everything. There would be no gold, just the realization that an opportunity that may never come again was lost forever.

Maybe a touch of bitterness, too, because Hammer feels the country she was trying to win a gold medal for let her down.

All because she wore a mask.

``It really hurt me a lot,'' Hammer said. ``It still hurts me.''

Causing a scene was the last thing Hammer and three other cyclists had in mind when they got off their international flight at the Beijing airport, eager to embark on their Olympic journey. Escaping Beijing's polluted air was, though, and for that reason the four walked through the airport wearing the custom black face masks that U.S. Olympic officials had handed out.

For months they had heard stories about how bad the air would be. For months they had listened to warnings that they should have their masks ready.

``We figured there would be hundreds of others there with masks on, too,'' Hammer said.

There weren't, and that's where the trouble began.

Photographers waiting for more famous athletes to arrive began taking pictures. Video crews moved in to show the Americans picking up luggage while wearing the masks.

By the time they had taken the bus to the athlete's village, they had created an international incident. The videos were on CNN International, while the photos were seemingly everywhere.

They had embarrassed their hosts. And there would be a price to pay.

The next morning Hammer was awakened by a phone call telling her to be downstairs in 10 minutes along with fellow cyclists Michael Friedman, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed. She says the four were lectured by Steve Roush, the USOC's chief of sports performance, and told they had two hours to apologize or risk being kicked out of the games.

A statement later was crafted in their names saying they ``deeply regret the nature of our choices'' and praising Chinese officials for doing everything they could to clean up the air.

Hammer never saw it, but she wasn't seeing much. She stopped looking at e-mail and didn't watch TV. The only way she could prepare for her races was to put herself in a bubble and try to block everything out.

It didn't work.

Hammer had won two of the last three world championships in the individual pursuit, but could do no better than fifth in her specialty race. She got another chance in the 100-lap points race, but crashed, breaking her collarbone when someone fell inches from her front wheel.

And now she can only wonder about what could have been.

``I don't see how anyone can say it didn't affect me,'' Hammer said. ``The Olympics are a very intense experience just by themselves and then when you add that stress that happened to us - the worst thing was we didn't feel any kind of support. Here we are representing the United States and I was so proud to do that. I was so excited, and it just changed everything. I felt like I didn't have any support.''

Hammer's fellow masked cyclists fared just as badly, and all must now face the question of whether they have enough desire to try again four years from now in London. For now, though, they have some unfinished business left.

They've asked the USOC for an apology, and a statement exonerating them for doing anything wrong in Beijing. They were, after all, wearing masks issued by the USOC with the instructions they could wear them as they saw fit.

Most of all, they want to make sure no other athletes have to be put through what they went through.

USOC chief executive Jim Scherr denied earlier when the apology was issued that the cyclists had been forced into it. Scherr said the athletes did it on their own after realizing how much they offended the Chinese.

USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said Monday the organization plans to hold a conference call with the cyclists this week and ``listen to any concerns they have and answer any questions they have.''

Hammer wishes that would have happened earlier in Beijing. She still might not have won gold, but she surely would have had a better chance at it.

``I just have a lot of sadness that it had to happen and now I'm trying to make sure it won't happen to another athlete,'' she said. ``For me it's just so hard to imagine even now. It's like a dream sometimes.''


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org