U.S. triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker has a decision to make at the opening ceremony of the Olympics next month in Beijing: Should he strap on a mask?
Chinese officials insist the notorious Beijing air will be cleaner by August, making such contraptions unnecessary. Concerned about the pollution, the U.S. Olympic Committee is distributing a high-tech mask, developed in secrecy, to its more than 600 Olympians. If athletes deploy it, they risk insulting the hosts. Then there's the geek factor.
"I probably will want to wear it," says the 26-year-old Mr. Shoemaker, who plans to have his mask on nearly all the time he's in Beijing when not competing. "Whether I will be allowed to is a different issue."
Though the practice is less common today, Chinese for years have worn masks to protect their lungs from the country's heavy dust and pollution. But foreigners wearing them during the Games this summer -- particularly at the opening ceremony broadcast to billions of television viewers around the world? That's a different matter.
The details of the mask, which the U.S. Olympic Committee, or USOC, spent more than two years developing, remain hush-hush. That contrasts with the USOC's usual openness, typified by its willingness to share its training complex in Colorado Springs, Colo., with teams from around the world.
"Some of our strategies and equipment are, quite honestly, 'top secret,' and we are hesitant to lay all our cards on the table for our competitors to mimic," explained Randy Wilber, the USOC's sport physiologist who oversaw the mask project, in an email.
The issue is highly charged for Chinese officials, who say recent measures, such as limiting vehicular traffic and shutting down factories, will make the Beijing air more than suitable for Olympic competition next month. Over the weekend, Beijing enjoyed unusually clear weather, as the city entered the final stretch of its crash effort to clean up the skies.
"When people come to this environment and get acclimated, they'll see they won't need" a mask, says Jeff Ruffolo, senior adviser to the Beijing Olympic Committee.
Mr. Shoemaker remains unconvinced.
The poor air quality during other triathlons in China that he has competed in made his lungs feel like someone was standing on his chest, he says. So last fall, when he arrived at a triathlon outside Beijing, he opted for a mask.
Competitors teased him, telling him he looked ridiculous. Mr. Shoemaker himself worried about offending his Chinese hosts, who insisted there was nothing wrong with the air.
"I definitely got some comments, like, 'Come on, that's a little much,' " he says.
Still, he wore the surgeon-style mask for nearly his entire four days in China before and after competing. He took it off just seconds before his event. In the end, Mr. Shoemaker had the last laugh: He finished first among the Americans, by 12 seconds, qualifying him for the U.S. Olympic team now headed for Beijing.
Cyclists wear masks while riding in Beijing last week. Beijing authorities have insisted air quality in the Chinese capital has improved enough to meet its Olympic targets.
"There is the uncool factor," says Mr. Schnitzspahn, the triathlon team official. "But it's not so uncool once you're on the team."
American athletes who have received the new USOC mask say they were instructed not to share details about it. Some have disclosed that it contains a carbon-filter insert and comes in different colors, including black and taupe.
The secrecy has irked some. "If we have something that will help these kids from developing bronchial problems, why not share that with the rest of the world?" says Frank Filiberto, the head doctor for the U.S. boxing team.
He saw firsthand the effects of the Beijing air on his boxers during a test event last November, he says. On a scheduled five-mile run one morning, the boxers were coughing. Five of the 11 boxers came down with bronchitis, and three required medical treatment, he says. The coaches decided to keep the boxers in their hotel for the rest of the week, where they trained in the hallways.
Many play down the need to wear masks, arguing that everyone will be coping with the same conditions. The International Olympic Committee has promised to postpone events should the pollution get too thick. Some point out that pollution fears before the 1984 Games in Los Angeles turned out to be unfounded.
"There's always somebody b- about something," says former U.S. Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. "In Athens, athletes pulled out because they thought there were going to be terrorists -- they missed out."
At the moment, there is no stated policy on mask-wearing at the opening ceremony or during competition. Olympic officials believe it's up to the international federation of each sport to determine whether to allow masks during events.
The British Olympic Association has developed a mask that could actually be worn during competition, unlike the U.S. mask. Respro Ltd., a self-described maker of "urban survival equipment" in London, says it has supplied the British team with a device called the Sportsta. It is made of neoprene and features state-of-the-art valves.
This past spring, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, took a stand on the issue -- sort of. "I recommend athletes not to wear masks because our experts say they are not efficient," Mr. Rogge said. "They can do whatever they want, but I'm telling them it's totally useless."
Matthew Reed, a member of the U.S. triathlon team, says that seeing Olympic athletes suffering from polluted air on the world stage might not be all bad: It could embarrass China into embracing stronger environmental measures. "It's just disgusting what they've done to that part of the world," says the 32-year-old Mr. Reed, who grew up in New Zealand.
At a soccer match last year in Beijing, foreign players on the sideline wore masks, prompting several Chinese fans to tell them they were insulting and unnecessary, according to an American Olympic official who witnessed the episode.
Kara Goucher, a runner on the U.S. Olympic track team who says she will likely wear a mask between events, knows what it's like to get stares. She started wearing a mask two months ago on flights to protect against catching a cold. "People ask if I'm sick and I have to be like 'No, I'm doing this to protect myself from you!' "
Tourists at the Games this summer will have to balance sensitivity to their Chinese hosts with how they feel about health and personal appearance. "It depends on how 'Michael Jackson' you want to get," says Scott Grody, chief operating officer of Fugazy International Travel/American Express, in Boca Raton, Fla.
But the big mask moment could well be the opening ceremony on Aug. 8.
Mr. Shoemaker, the triathlete who intends to wear his mask at the ceremony, says he might consider taking it off when TV cameras zoom in on the U.S. delegation.
For friends watching at home, he says, "I want to make sure they see the big smile on my face."