DENVER The Olympic cyclists who wore masks at the Beijing airport want something positive to come out of their ordeal. They also seek the ouster of the U.S. Olympic Committee executive who they say humiliated them and bullied them into making an apology "or else."
"He just treated us like children," Sarah Hammer said Monday of the meeting last month with Steve Roush, the USOC's chief of sport performance. "He wasn't interested in anything we had to say."
The call for Roush's job came a day after the USOC sent a letter to the athletes, acknowledging their mishandling of some parts of the situation and encouraging the athletes to "reach out to the USOC directly" if they had any other concerns.
The letter came on the heels of a conference call the cyclists held with Jim Scherr, the CEO of the USOC.
The athletes held another conference call Monday, this one with reporters to outline the changes they were hoping for. They are proposing legislation, which could be considered at a USOC meeting next month, that would guarantee an athletes' representative would be present for any future meetings, the likes of which the cyclists held with Roush.
"We want to do our best to make sure this never happens again," Bobby Lea said. "We want that to be part of our Olympic legacy."
A legacy they apparently hope Roush will not be there to share.
Roush did not make himself available for comment and USOC officials were in no mood to extend the life of this uncomfortable story.
"During his call with the athletes last week, Jim indicated he would address this matter internally, and he has done so," USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said. "In our view, this matter is closed and behind us."
Roush has been the chief of sport performance for the USOC since 2004, has worked for the USOC since 2000 and was a top executive at USA Swimming for six years before that. He made about two dozen trips to Beijing over the past six years trying to ensure optimal conditions for U.S. athletes. Many believe he deserves a lot of credit for the U.S. team's ability to hold off China in the medal count, 110-100 something Scherr and chairman Peter Ueberroth predicted would not happen.
Three of the four cyclists used their opening statements during the conference call to rip Roush and Kelly Skinner, the USOC's director for sports partnerships, for the way they treated them after their arrival at the Beijing airport, where photographers snapped pictures of them in their masks.
"It was deplorable," Lea said. "They should be held accountable for their actions."
Asked specifically if Roush should lose his job, cyclist Jennie Reed replied: "I would definitely support that." The sentiment was shared by Hammer and Lea.
Mike Friedman, the fourth athlete on the call, was less strident.
"I'm sure there's some reason he's got that job. He's got some credentials somewhere," he said. "But if he's doing a bad job, it needs to be reevaluated."
Of the about 10,500 participants in the Beijing Games, the American cyclists were the only athletes photographed wearing masks at the airport, something of a surprise to them, they said, because the masks had been recommended to them for a long time by USOC staff, including USOC sports physiologist Randy Wilber.
Hammer said she had been one of Wilber's guinea pigs when the mask was being developed by the USOC, which wanted to provide options for athletes who were worried about Beijing's notorious pollution.
Reed and Lea said they went to an Olympic test event in December and got sick. They had been told to wear the mask there to replicate their upcoming Olympic experience.
"I wanted to wear the mask as much as possible," Reed said. "I get a bit claustrophobic wearing them so much. But I wanted to wear it as much as I could possibly handle."
Which included their arrival at the Beijing airport Aug. 5, where the site of them in masks, three days before the start of the games, turned into the big news of the day.
The cyclists said they were still jet lagged and disoriented when they were woken up early the next morning and told to hurry to a meeting in Roush's office.
The meeting was held without John Ruger, the athletes' ombudsman who, like Roush, did not have access to the athletes' village.
The cyclists described Roush as angry and condescending, unwilling to partake in a back-and-forth conversation. They said he told them they had disgraced the U.S. delegation.
They said he told them they had 2 1/2 hours to draft an apology, lest he take their case to a USOC panel that could expel them from the games. Roush was on that panel.
"He told us there were five voting members on the committee and he didn't know how the other four would vote," Lea said.
The cyclists said Roush and Andy Lee, the communications director for USA Cycling, drafted the apology and that they never had a chance to see it or sign off on it before it was released to the media.
Part of the apology read: "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."
"I heard about it," Friedman said. "I was appalled."
The athletes agreed that even though their event began more than a week after their meeting with Roush, the tone of the meeting set things up for a bad performance. None won medals. Hammer's fifth-place finish was the best of the four.
"It created a very negative environment," Hammer said. "Walking to meals, walking to sports medicine, there are people looking at you, staring at you, asking you, 'Where's your mask?' We were getting made fun of. I believe it didn't help at all. But everyone's different. Everyone responds differently."
To prevent these things from happening again, the athletes want their legislation passed.
In the USOC's letter, Scherr said every effort will be made in the future "to ensure the Athlete Ombudsman is aware of and has the opportunity to be present in sensitive meetings with athletes and the USOC at the Games."