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View from Spain: Photo was never intended to offend Chinese

MADRID, Spain -- In general, Spanish society, including sports fans and entities that keep a watchful eye over moral conduct in the country, has reacted with one voice to the controversy triggered by a photo showing all 15 players on Spain's Olympic men's basketball team using their fingers to make their eyes look apparently more Chinese.

The verdict? There's no need to apologize.

Guard Jose Manuel Calderon, a member of the Spanish Olympic squad and the NBA's Toronto Raptors, has said the picture was never intended to have a racist tone.

"We thought it was appropriate, and the idea was conceived as a friendly gesture; it was never offensive," Calderon said. "We have a lot of respect for the Chinese people; actually, some of my best friends in Toronto are of Chinese background. Only a confused mind would want to turn this into a controversy."

The picture, part of an advertisement for team sponsor Seur, a Spanish courier company, that appeared in the Spanish daily sports newspaper Marca, features all 15 Spanish players posing with pulled-back eyes on a basketball court adorned with a Chinese dragon.

The Spanish women's basketball team also posed for a similar photo. Members of the Spanish tennis squad and Argentina's Olympic women's soccer team recently were shown making similar faces in separate pictures.

But the controversy seems to be following center Pau Gasol, who also plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, and his Spanish teammates.

International media, especially in the United States and Great Britain, have covered the controversy surrounding the photo extensively. A story in London's Daily Telegraph said Spain's "poor reputation for insensitivity toward racial issues has been further harmed" by the incident.

U.S. Olympic men's basketball team guard Jason Kidd echoed the sentiment, calling out the National Basketball Association for what he perceives to be a "double standard."

"We would've been already thrown out of the Olympics," Kidd said. "At least we wouldn't have been able to come back to the U.S. There would be suspensions."

Kidd's comments point out the cultural differences between American and Spanish societies.

In Spain, pulling back one's eyes is not considered an offense aimed at the Chinese community -- in fact, there's even a popular Spanish children's song that includes such posing. In Spain, bad and offensive intentions are often in the mind of the beholder.

Interviews with several Spanish sports fans support that.

"I have two adopted daughters from China, and they'll both pose with Asian 'slant-eyes' when asked about their background," said Goyo Panadero, an executive at one of the most successful construction companies in Spain. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Panadero's situation is not unusual in Spain. Spaniards are behind only Americans in the number of adoptions of children from China, according to the China Center of Adoption Affairs. In 2005, Spanish families adopted more than 5,400 children from abroad, up from 1,800 in 1997. More than 2,700 of those 5,400 adoptions were from China, Spain's government data shows.

The Spanish men's basketball team is adored by fans in Spain. Gasol and his teammates are considered gentlemen who still enjoy the game of basketball, regardless of its commercial implications. Players are considered role models in Spanish society. The team has safely avoided off-court criminal raps.

"These are crazy, completely ridiculous accusations," said Alejandro Bueno, who lives in La Estrella, a barrio in Madrid. "Would we be dealing with the same reaction had this picture be taken by players from another country? You have to be crazy to mix sports and politics in such an unjustified way. Spain will never be intimidated by these ridiculous accusations, particularly coming from U.S. media."

Carlos Perez Beruete, a native of Pamplona, shares Bueno's reasoning.

"It's funny to see that this picture has not bothered the Chinese people [in China]," Perez Beruete said. "It's interesting to see that the criticism is coming from the United States and England. They [the U.S. and England] don't understand that Spain is not so politically correct. We, for example, don't use terms such as 'African-American.' This is all taken out of proportion."

Spanish media have defended the Spanish team. In fact, the only "news" the picture generated was the controversy generated by it, particularly in American and British media.

Main media outlets in Spain have called the picture "a genuine act of friendship to the Chinese community" and "a misunderstood act of innocence." As part of the message, Spanish media outlets have accused counterparts in the U.S. and England of triggering an unjustified accusation of racism toward Spanish society.

International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davies, asked about the photo last week, called it "inappropriate" but added: "We understand the team has apologized and meant no offense. The matter rests there for the IOC." The NBA declined to comment on the photo.

It is not the first time the British and the Spanish have clashed over race.

Former Spanish soccer coach Luis Aragones, while trying to motivate striker Jose Antonio Reyes in a 2005 match, was overheard referring to France's Thierry Henry as a "black s---."

Aragones was given a 3,000-euro fine. Henry called the fine "ridiculous" and urged FIFA to take more drastic action. Aragones denied charges of racism. The case drew heavy coverage in the British media.

Spanish Formula One fans sometimes are known internationally as "The Shame of Spain." Earlier this year, British driver Lewis Hamilton said Spanish Grand Prix fans lobbed taunts, insults and racial slurs at him while he was testing on the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. The racial attacks are believed to be related to Hamilton's rivalry with Spain's Fernando Alonso.

Some fans even wore monkey suits.

The actions immediately were condemned, and the International Automobile Federation even considered exercising its power to suspend the Spanish Grand Prix.

As for the photo of the basketball team, the reaction in China has been muted. A spokesman for the Chinese apparel company Li Ning, a sponsor for the Spanish team, told The Associated Press last week that the company does not "think this is an insult to the Chinese." New York Times columnist Harvey Araton showed the photo to two Chinese staffers in the newspaper's Beijing office. "Neither viewed it with surprise or disgust, but more with bewilderment," Araton wrote.

Panadero, among others, wasn't surprised.

"As a father, I'm not upset," Panadero said. "Particularly coming from the national Olympic basketball team."

Ignacio Tena is a sports journalist based in Madrid, Spain. The Associated Press contributed to this report.