Cyclists' Stunt Embodies Concern Over Pollution

BEIJING -- Four U.S. Olympic cyclists who arrived for the Beijing Games wearing breathing masks have apologized for their actions, clearing some of the bad air generated by fears about pollution.

Organizers of the games in the sprawling metropolis of 15 million people crossed their fingers with two days to go until Friday's opening ceremony, which China fervently hopes will see fireworks flashing up into clear evening skies.

But a stubborn haze persisted over the city on Wednesday, drawing a gray veil over a skyline that sprouts new high-rise blocks as China's economic boom continues to reverberate.

Humid air with the temperature hitting 34 degrees Celsius kept a muggy lid over the city, which has already pulled millions of cars off the roads and halted factories to improve air quality.

But meteorologists said chances of the haze lifting over the next two days were good.

A storm in the South China Sea was approaching Hong Kong, where Olympic equestrian events are scheduled to start on Saturday and might have to be delayed.

But "severe" Tropical Storm Kammuri could bring welcome rain later to Beijing, perhaps washing the skies clean for Friday.

Senior U.S. Olympic Committee official Jim Scherr said the Olympic cyclists who landed at Beijing airport wearing black respiratory masks had been "a little bit overcautious."

"Those athletes regret that action, and they have written an apology to BOCOG [Beijing organizing committee] on their own behalf," he told a news conference.

But Scherr confirmed that about one-third of the U.S. team -- or some 200 athletes -- had been issued with the same type of mask prior to arrival in China and would not be prevented from using them if they saw the need.

Athletes were understandably concerned about anything that might impair their performance in sports where a few hundredths of a second can separate gold from fourth place, he noted.

Beijing has shut factories, pulled cars from its roads and spent 120 billion yuan ($17.6 billion) to combat chronic pollution and ensure that smog does not shroud the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.

The city is holding off on plans to ground more cars and close more factories, hoping that the weather will clear by itself.

"We haven't been told to implement any additional measures," said Li Jianguo, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Communications.

Germany's sporting director, Bernhard Schwank, said the conditions were as expected.

"A lot of athletes have been moaning and groaning when they first got off their airplanes and got their first feel of it, but most of those here have already grown accustomed to the conditions," Schwank said.

"So far, there have been no health complaints."

The Athens 2004 Games were also plagued in advance by fears that summer smog, heat and humidity would make them the hottest in modern history, with temperatures of 24-34 degrees Celsius, and athletes would fade away.