- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

BEIJING — Feeling exhausted after a long flight from the United States, Pat McDonough answered his cell phone late last week. It was a reporter asking for reaction.

“A comment about what?” McDonough replied.

Thus began Mask Flap 2008 at the Olympics.

U.S. cyclists Michael Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed arrived wearing black respiratory masks. Some people objected. Most didn’t care. The U.S. Olympic Committee, for some reason, cared.

The USOC asked (probably demanded) that the cyclists release a statement apologizing to everybody from Beijing to the Olympic Organizing Committee to the owner and operator of Chin Chin Cafe in Ashburn.

But for what?

The USOC had given each team the masks as a precaution. The cyclists had been to China before and experienced breathing problems.

For making the cyclists apologize, the USOC should apologize for failing to accept any blame, for making an issue out of a nonissue, for putting the focus not on their talents or back stories but what they held over their faces.

Asked why the USOC didn’t support his team, McDonough, the team manager, laughed and laughed again and then laughed one more time before saying, “That’s called a no comment.”

“What it came down to [was] we decided to hand out the masks and told how they worked,” he said. “It’s very sensitive here, and we all understand that. We all understand that better now.”

What the cycling team understands and the rest of the teams should as well is that image is everything to the USOC.

It could have avoided starting Mask Flap with a statement saying it gave out the masks and it supports the athletes’ right to use them. It could have avoided a controversy and made a few calls to the Chinese government to allow former gold medalist Joey Cheek in the country. Just wait until somebody - maybe the fearless softball player Jessica Mendoza - pops off about Darfur. The USOC may confiscate her medals and force her to ride middle seat on the plane trip home.

“We were all kind of blown away,” McDonough said. “Everybody got calls from home, and we were like, ‘Holy cow!’ We were taken aback by the reaction.”

Now that the competition is beginning, the athletes hope the flap is behind them, even though Hammer admitted she wore the mask around the Athletes’ Village when the smog was at its thickest last weekend.

“I have taken the precaution, and I feel healthy,” she said. “I believe that’s why I am feeling good.”

Before Mask Flap, Hammer was used to talking about her retirement from the sport … at age 20. But watching the 2004 Olympics, she realized she wanted to return. The Olympics and a year working retail selling bagels and cell phones was the motivation.

“I suddenly thought, ‘What would happen if I came back?’” she said.

What happened were world championships in 2006 and 2007 in individual pursuit, a 12-lap race around the velodrome in which speeds exceed 30 mph.

Soon after the second title, her back gave out - the two ruptured discs kept her off the bike for three months. She came back to finish second at the world championships last spring.

“We’re really starting to see her come back,” McDonough said. “She still has some issues, but she’s to the point where she can manage them.”

Mask Flap, though, was a little more difficult for Hammer to manage, sullying the beginning of her Olympic experience.

“Being a first-time Olympian, I had never been in a situation like this, so just being here was overwhelming,” she said. “But to add more attention to myself stressed me out a little more to begin with. But I hope it’s all behind me now.”

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