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Turning the other Cheek

August 6, 2008 |  9:59 am

Some members of the U.S. Olympic delegation arrive wearing masks at Beijing's Capital Airport on Tuesday.

BEIJING -- In 2006, the U.S. Olympic Committee chose Joey Cheek to be its SportsMan of the year, in recognition of his winning gold and silver medals in long-track speed skating, as well as for his selflessness in donating his $40,000 in winnings from the Turin Games to the charitable organization Right to Play to help kids in Darfur.

By Wednesday Cheek, who co-founded Team Darfur, an organization that hopes to end China's support of Sudan and Sudan's repression of human rights in Darfur, had become merely "a private citizen" in the eyes of the USOC. A citizen the USOC seemed unwilling to help after Chinese officials revoked the visa that would have allowed Cheek to leave Washington, D.C., to attend the Beijing Games.

Two years ago Jim Scherr, the USOC's chief executive officer, praised Cheek for exemplifying "great sportsmanship and strength of character both on and off the field."

On Tuesday, when asked about Cheek's visa being revoked by Chinese officials, Scherr said it was "unfortunate that he will not have that opportunity but that's between this government and Joey as a private citizen who's trying to make his way to these Games."

Wednesday's news conference was not one of the USOC's finest hours. In addition to essentially disowning Cheek, the USOC did a remarkable tap dance around the problems athletes may face because of the still-oppressive humidity and hazy air.

Perhaps they figured the hot air they generated would stir the heavy, gray skies that pressed down on the city all day Wednesday.

USOC officials also publicly and emphatically scolded the four cyclists who wore masks as they arrived at the Beijing airport, conscious that China would interpret the masks as an insult to its efforts to clean up the air before the Games.

Jim Scherr attends a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday. Scherr, in an acerbic tone, said that "since it wasn't late October it really wasn't the best and most opportune time for the athletes to wear those masks."

Yet Scherr, an Olympic wrestler in his youth, acknowledged that "some athletes, knowing that hundredths of a second may be the difference between a gold medal and a fourth-place finish, are obviously looking to take account for anything they can that might give them a competitive advantage."

If they felt safeguarding their health would give them that advantage, why scold them for wearing the masks? Or has the USOC sacrificed its principles for the sake of winning international votes for Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid?

Michael Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed later dutifully issued a collective public apology and said they did not mean their action "to serve as an environmental or political statement."

It's becoming less and less clear what anything means here. Maybe it's the air.

-- Helene Elliott

Photos: Some members of the U.S. Olympic delegation arrive wearing masks at Beijing's Capital Airport on Tuesday. Credit: Valery Hache / AFP/Getty Images. Insert: USOC Chief Executive Jim Scherr attends a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit: Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images.

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