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After a few days in Beijing, VeloNews’ Fred Dreier says masks seem like a really good idea.

The racing hasn’t yet begun at the Laoshan Velodrome, site of the Beijing Olympics’ track events, but the USA track team has already been jumped. No, it wasn’t a team of big-legged brawny sprinters that pounced on Team America’s trackies, or a gang of cup-toting drug sniffs. It wasn’t the Germans, Russians or Dutch. It was a horde of camera toting news-hungry media men, eager for a story — any story. And on a slow news day, word travels fast.

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By Fred Dreier

Beijing Olympics: Downtown

Beijing Olympics: Downtown

Photo: Fred Dreier

The racing hasn’t yet begun at the Laoshan Velodrome, site of the Beijing Olympics’ track events, but the USA track team has already been jumped.

No, it wasn’t a team of big-legged brawny sprinters that pounced on Team America’s trackies, or a gang of cup-toting drug sniffs. It wasn’t the Germans, Russians or Dutch. It was a horde of camera toting news-hungry media men, eager for a story — any story. And on a slow news day, word travels fast.

We’ve all seen the photos of Bobby Lea, Sarah Hammer and Jennie Reed strolling through the super-modern Beijing Capital International Airport wearing those creepy black masks. Yeah, the ones that Dr. Darth Vader the oral surgeon might wear while yanking out wisdom teeth. The riders put on the masks to ward against Beijing’s notorious air pollution before exiting their plane from California. And once they stepped into the airport, where the abundance of non-masked people made them stick out like sore thumbs, they were greeted by a welcoming committee of photographers.

Beijing Olympics: The Great Wall

Beijing Olympics: The Great Wall

Photo: Fred Dreier

It’s no secret that Beijing is understandably sensitive about the negative press it has received about its poor air. The Chinese have taken major steps to address the situation, including spending an estimated $16 billion on cloud seeding and emissions reductions. And the city has zapped one million cars from its packed roads almost overnight with tight driving restrictions.

So it wasn’t long before the story of the “disrespectful” American cyclists, out to tarnish the reputation of the Chinese, reached the news wires. With the Olympic action yet to begin, and U.S. newspapers and Web sites eager for news from Beijing, the track story spread darn quick. Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and Reuters all featured pieces within a day. U.S. Olympic Committee officials chastised the actions of the cyclists. The IOC’s chair of its medical commission publicly dismissed the athletes’ actions as unnecessary.

“The mist in the air that we see in those places, including here, is not a feature of pollution primarily but a feature of evaporation and humidity,” Ljungqvist told The New York Times. “I’m sure, I’m confident the air quality will not prove to pose major problems to the athletes and to the visitors in Beijing.”

USA Cycling’s media machine kicked into overdrive, helping the riders issue a diplomatic statement of apology for their actions before the stuff really hit the fan.

“We offer our sincere apologies to BOCOG, the city of Beijing, and the people of China if our actions were in any way offensive. That was not our intent,” the message read. “The wearing of protective masks upon our arrival into Beijing was strictly a precautionary measure we as athletes chose to take, and was in no way meant to serve as an environmental or political statement.

“We deeply regret the nature of our choices. Our decision was not intended to insult BOCOG or countless others who have put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing. We look forward to putting this incident behind us while we prepare for our competition next week.”

I have no doubt that countless amounts of manpower, money and material have gone into improving Beijing’s air quality. And folks I have spoken to who have spent time in China assure me that the “fog” I see out my hotel window pales in comparison to the brown cloud of just two years ago.

But with the Olympics on the line — the biggest sporting event in the world — how can anyone blame the U.S. cyclists for taking precautions? Sure Ljungqvist is probably right, but what if he’s not? If you had dedicated your life to ensuring your body worked like a well-oiled machine, wouldn’t you take every chance to keep it clean?

I think Mike “Meatball” Friedman put it best in his quote to the Times.

“When you train your whole life for something, dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s, why wouldn’t you be better safe than sorry?”

And, to be honest, despite all of the money spent on scrubbing clean its air, Beijing’s sky just looks gnarly. No, the air isn’t packed with soot, and deep breaths don’t immediately produce coughing fits. I have been told that much of the Beijing haze is from evaporated water. Much is also from dust, and a fair amount also comes from tailpipes.

I landed in Beijing the day after the U.S. track team, and I cringed at how dim the sun looked from the window of my plane. I could barely make out the outlines of the massive airport’s terminal. A soupy brown mist hung everywhere.

For a native Coloradan, who is used to looking up and seeing blue, the sight was absolutely shocking.

And do you know what the first thought that popped into my head was?

I’m gonna need a mask.

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