SPORTS

NOTES ROM BEIJING

The faces on the TV screen looked like they were from some action movie. But the six young men and women wearing black masks covering half their faces were neither actors nor bandits. They were members of the US cycling team using specially designed masks to protect them from Beijing’s air. As expected, the incident caused significant embarrassment to the Chinese organizers and put the US Olympic Committee in a tough spot. In a press conference, USOC’s CEO Jim Sherr explained that the athletes now regret their action and have sent a written apology to the Chinese organizers. The USOC tried to distance itself from the six, deeming their act unnecessary, though refusing at the same time to dissuade other US athletes from wearing masks if they feel like it. It is a difficult balancing act. While the IOC’s medical chairman Professor Arne Ljungqvist sounded fairly convincing when he said that the pollution problem is being exaggerated, a gray humid mist maintains its stubborn grip on the city, making it hard for the air-quality story to go away. The days before the opening ceremony are always nerve-racking for the organizers. If they can reach the opening day without major incident, the ceremony usually goes ahead free of problems, the Games start and anxiety levels drop. Organizers can then feel confident that any other issues will be effectively resolved by the respective international federations that have accumulated vast experience in organizing world championships over the years. But now several stories are brewing. Only this morning, in an embarrassing breach of security, activists scaled two lamp posts very close to the main Olympic Stadium and hung banners with pro-Tibet slogans. The Chinese police eventually pulled them down, but not before TV crews had broadcast pictures around the world. On a different note, having spent time in the main press center near a group of British journalists, I learned that the Daily Telegraph is pursuing a story about a Chinese acrobat who is reported to have been seriously injured during an opening ceremony rehearsal, an accident reportedly kept under wraps so far by the authorities. Two days to go until the opening ceremony. Stratos Safioleas was the international media manager for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.