'Welcome to the Congo!' message forces USOC to apologize to Brazilians

Sunday, July 8, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- In a joke that made Brazilians cringe and forced the U.S. Olympic Committee to apologize, a USOC worker scrawled "Welcome to the Congo!" on a whiteboard in the organization's Rio de Janeiro media center for the Pan American Games.

Rio's O Globo newspaper published a photo of the message on its front page Saturday, and ran a headline saying the joke was "full of prejudice." The message was condemned in a nation extremely sensitive about being compared to much less-developed countries.

The USOC issued a "deep apology to the people of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro" in a statement Saturday, and said the worker who wrote the phrase was disciplined and is no longer a member of the U.S. delegation to the games.

The picture in O Globo showed USOC media employee Kevin Neuendorf in front of the whiteboard, and the story quoted him as saying it was written because "it's really hot in Rio."

O Globo noted that Rio is in the middle of its South American winter, and that the USOC office at the games is air conditioned. The newspaper also produced a full-page graphic showing a map of the globe, pointing out that the Congo is in Africa and an ocean away from Brazil. The graphic included bright red arrows and a headline in English and Portuguese, saying "Watch and Learn."

About 5,500 athletes from 42 countries across the hemisphere are expected to attend the Olympic-style July 13-29 games, as well as 2,000 delegation members, 3,000 journalists and 15,000 volunteers.

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