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Wednesday, August 06, 2008
United States Olympic Committee's Behavior Policies
Let's call this column a tale of two behavior policies.
Part I -- The USOC's Charm School
In a move that reminded me of attempts of my seven-year-old son's counsellor's to ensure good behavior at summer camp, the USOC began an "ambassador program" to teach all U.S. Olympians about Chinese culture, has attempted to get all of this country's Olympic participants to prevent "ugly American" incidents that have marred the last few Games. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, the The U.S. Olympic Committee, for the first time ever, is requiring all of its 596 Olympians to attend this course prior to traveling to Beijing. Despite the off-hand comparison to summer camp, the idea of teaching etiquette is long overdue.
A major reason is to prevent crude and embarrassing moments by some Americans in recent years, such as certain U.S. hockey players trashing their rooms in Nagano, and skier Bode Miller's antics in the Turin Games. However, the article, under a subheading "boys will be boys" noted that Michael Phelps showed his cultural sensitivity to using chop sticks by "stabbing" a coach, while others were content at using their blackberries and phones for text messages.
While some of the rituals could have been dropped [they are explained in the article], the USOC is correct is making sure that athletes coming to another country exhibit professional behavior and not to engage in sophomoric things that may antagonize their hosts and embarrass the country they represent. I have no problem with that. It is akin acting professionally in the workplace.
Part II -- Avoiding Hurting the Host's Feelings
Where I do have a problem, however, is when the USOC goes overboard to apologize for any act that may hurt the host's feelings. A case in point: the four U.S. Olympic cyclists who arrived in Beijing wearing USOC-issued face masks to protect against the well-document air pollution problem in the capital. After the pictures were widely circulated in the media, the cyclists apologized to BOCOG and claimed that they did so "voluntarily." However, it was reported that USOC officials were angry at the cyclists Michael Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed. Friedman was quoted: “They told us the Chinese were mad and that this is a politically charged issue."
Politically charged? Give me a break. I could understand the USOC's displeasure if the cyclists engaged in cultural stereotyping or made racially or ethnically insensitive comments or criticized Chinese human rights policy, but they used the masks as a way to point out the pollution problems that have cast a pall over the games.
The athletes' statement [found here] offered "sincere apologies to BOCOG, the city of Beijing, and the people of China if our actions were in any way offensive. . . 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."
If the use of the masks was a "precautionary measure," why the offense? Maybe it was not the most diplomatic thing to wear them upon arrival at the airport, but these are the athletes that will have to compete in this likely heat, humidity and dirty air. It's a major safety issue and one that the Chinese are desperately trying to improve. At this writing, the reports are not particularly encouraging.
Beijing was not forced to host the games and in doing so, they take center stage for praise and criticism. USOC and U.S. athletes cannot kowtow to every slight. As hosts to such a major event, BOCOG they should have thicker skin. And if the air problems cause injuries and illness, their offense to this minor incident will be the least of their problems. It hardly constitutes a grave political offense.
I wonder what would happen if the athletes refused to apologize and other arriving athletes wore such masks. Is there anything that the IOC or the National Governing Bodies could do? I checked the USOC's code of conduct for the 2008 game [found here] and did not find that the cyclists' conduct violated any particular provision. However, one portion of the Athlete Pledge, requires that all competitors have "acted and will act in a sportsmanlike manner consistent with the spirit of fair play and responsible conduct." Although this is a stretch, it may be possible for the USOC to use this section to discipline players. But even so, the matter would be brought to arbitration.