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Trackies put ‘MaskGate’ behind them

Call it MaskGate.Four world-class track cyclists land in one of the most polluted cities in the world and want nothing more than to protect the one organ – their lungs – that most determines whether or not they’ll win an Olympic medal.They don masks, given to them by their Olympic governing body, and an international scandal erupts.Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed, Michael Friedman and Bobby Lea unintentionally created a furor on August 5 when they walked into Beijing’s international airport wearing USOC-issued masks to cover their nose and mouths.What a way to

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Can we hit the 'rewind' button on that one?

Can we hit the ‘rewind’ button on that one?

Photo: Agence France Presse

Call it MaskGate.

Four world-class track cyclists land in one of the most polluted cities in the world and want nothing more than to protect the one organ – their lungs – that most determines whether or not they’ll win an Olympic medal.

They don masks, given to them by their Olympic governing body, and an international scandal erupts.

Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed, Michael Friedman and Bobby Lea unintentionally created a furor on August 5 when they walked into Beijing’s international airport wearing USOC-issued masks to cover their nose and mouths.

What a way to start the Games.

“I was taking the precaution to protect myself. How it’s interpreted, that’s always going to vary,” said Reed, who faced the media for the first time in a week during a Tuesday press conference. “There was no malicious intent there. We were just trying to use everything given to us.”

They didn’t mean to offend anyone, of course, but just as soon as the four strolled into a barrage of flash bulbs from photographer’s cameras, the USOC went scrambling into damage-control mode.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, a prompt apology was soon issued. No one wants offend the sensitive hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Flash forward a week later and gun-shy members of the U.S. track team are quietly optimistic they’ll be making headlines for something else beside the Mask Affaire when track cycling competition begins on Friday.

“Being in my first Olympics, I’ve never been in this situation, it’s a bit overwhelming to come in here,” admitted Hammer, a favorite for gold in the individual pursuit. “Then by adding more attention on myself, that put me a little more stressed out.”

Stressed out for the wrong reasons is the last thing the U.S. track team needs in Beijing.

After winning one medal in Sydney (Marty Nothstein’s sprint gold) and being blanked in Athens, the team is deep into a rebuilding program that they hope will pay off with some hardware in Beijing.

A distraction of worldwide proportions was not part of that rebuilding plan.

Headlines and damning photos buzzed around the world of athletes wearing masks.

It looked way worse than it was.

And, of course, that’s all the media wanted to talk about when Reed and Hammer – half of the Gang of Four – showed up for a press conference Tuesday, along with Taylor Phinney and Michael Blatchford.

Half the questions asked during the 30-minute session were about masks and the subsequent fallout.

“It’s like a bad race, we just have to put it behind us and refocus. It was unfortunate, I feel like we’re good now and ready to race,” Reed said. “We’re not used to showing up to an event and having that many people there, especially the media. I feel like it’s behind us. Everything is positive now.”

You can’t blame the riders for wearing a mask upon arriving to Beijing. Anyone who flew into the Chinese capital last week saw the brown soup obscuring the skies that were toxic enough to make even a smoker cringe.

Air quality has greatly improved in the last 48 hours, however, following two hard days of rain showers. The downpour washed out a heavy mix of haze and pollution.

Hammer admitted that she still wears the masks despite the uproar following their PR-disaster entrance.

“I still do wear the mask when I feel necessary,” she said. “Today and yesterday, since we’ve had the rain, it’s been really nice. I don’t wear when I don’t need it. I still wear it when need be.”

In fact, Hammer said that by wearing the mask, she’s feeling good ahead of Olympic competition.

“I feel that because I have taken the precaution, I feel healthy,” she said. “The whole point of what were meaning to do by wearing the mask was to have the best performance. I believe that’s why I am still feeling good. I feel like I am coming into just another race. I haven’t had a problem. I’ve been doing everything I need to do on every level. I feel positive about everything and I’m ready to go.”

Overlooked in the mask hysteria are Reed’s and Hammer’s realistic chances to medal.

Reed is the reigning world Keirin champion (not an Olympic sport for women) and world championship bronze medalist in the women’s sprint, two strong results that give her a shot of confidence against favored rivals like Victoria Pendleton.

“When my Keirin is strong, I know my sprint will be even stronger. It just got me excited. Getting bronze in the sprint was a huge step for me,” Reed said. “It got me really excited to come here with better form for the Olympics.”

Hammer, meanwhile, will likely go head-to-head against archrival Rebecca Romero, the former Olympic silver medalist rower who beat her in the individual pursuit world championships in Manchester in March to end Hammer’s two-year world champion run.

“Rebecca is one of my strongest competitors. I have so much respect for Rebecca,” Hammer said. “She is a second-time Olympian, coming from rowing, she has the experience from the Games. She has a great team behind here, but I feel like I have a great team behind me, too.”

It’s a team that will be keen to win something to keep the media focused on the action on the velodrome.