Spanish basketball star offers apology for offensive photo

Spain's leading basketball player Pau Gasol apologised on behalf of his team on Wednesday after widespread criticism of slit-eyed gestures by the world champions at the Beijing Olympics.

The photo, which has been running as a newspaper spread in Spain since Friday, shows the 15 players of the Spanish men's basketball squad dressed in Olympic kit making the gesture on a basketball court adorned with a Chinese dragon. All the players are pulling the skin back at the side of their eyes. The photo was part of a publicity campaign for team sponsor Seur, a Spanish courier company, and is being used only in Spain.

The Spanish women's basketball team also posed for photo doing the same thing, and four members of Argentina's women's Olympic football team were shown making similar faces in a photograph published last week.

Pau Gasol, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, told the New York Times that, at the time, some of the players had felt uncomfortable shooting the advertisement for sponsors Seur, a Spanish courier company. Seur was unavailable for comment.

"To me it was little clownish for our part to be doing that. The sponsor insisted and insisted. They pushed because they're the people that pay the money. It was just a bad idea to do that. It was never intended to be offensive or racist against anybody," the New York Times quoted him as saying on its website.

"If anyone feels offended by it, we totally apologise for it."

However the coach of the Spanish men's team, Aito Garcia Reneses, did not apologise for the picture and said the intention was a joke and not offensive.

Gasol's team mate Jose Calderon said the gestures had not been racist.

"I want to say that we have a great respect for the Orient and their peoples. Some of my best friends in Toronto are of Chinese origin," Calderon, who plays for Canada's NBA Toronto Raptors team, said in a message posted on his website ( http://www.josemanuelcalderon.com ).

"Whoever interprets something else from the photos has taken it completely the wrong way," he added.

"This was clearly inappropriate, but we understand the Spanish team intended no offence and has apologised," Emmanuelle Moreau, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said in an e-mail. "The matter rests there as far as the IOC is concerned."

The Spanish basketball federation declined to comment. "The players explained what happened," Villanueva said. "We think that's enough."

A Seur official in Madrid said the company had not intended to offend the Chinese people, but has no immediate plans to withdraw the ad, which is scheduled to run on selected days until the end of the games.

Seur has not received any formal protest or complaint from Chinese authorities, the official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.

Spanish newspapers also rejected suggestions that the pictures were racist, saying the team had donated money to charities helping the poor in Africa.

"To try and convert an affectionate gesture of a model group of sportsmen and women into racism is repugnant," said Jose Luis Martinez, columnist for the Marca sports newspaper in which the pictures first appeared.

World champions Spain have attempted to put the controversy behind them and have won their first three games of the competition. Last night they defeated Germany 72-59, while on Tuesday they beat China 85-75 desptie consistently getting booed throughout the game.

Meanwhile condemnation of the incident in Pau Gasol's adopted home of Los Angeles has been unanimous.

"The sheer stupidity of the Spanish team photo does make me just shake my head," said one contributor to the LA Times' Lakers blog. "Being Asian and seeing this however, I do want to shake my fist."

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