Players on Spain's Olympic basketball team defended a photo in an ad showing the players using their fingers to apparently make their eyes look more Chinese.
The photo, which has been running as a newspaper spread in Spain since Friday, shows all 15 players making the gesture on a basketball court adorned with a Chinese dragon. The photo was part of a publicity campaign for team sponsor Seur and is being used only in Spain.
"It was something like supposed to be funny or something but never offensive in any way," said Spain center Pau Gasol, who also plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. "I'm sorry if anybody thought or took it the wrong way and thought that it was offensive."
Point guard Jose Manuel Calderon said the team was responding to a request from the photographer.
"We felt it was something appropriate, and that it would be interpreted as an affectionate gesture," Calderon, who plays for NBA's Toronto Raptors, wrote on his ElMundo.es blog. "Without a doubt, some ... press didn't see it that way."
International media criticized the photo. London's Daily Telegraph said Spain's "poor reputation for insensitivity toward racial issues has been further harmed" by the photo.
"We're surprised by the remarks of racism," said Juan Antonio Villanueva, the communications director for Madrid's 2016 Olympic bid. "Spain is not a racist country - quite the opposite."
Gasol said it was "absurd" people were calling the gesture racist.
"We never intended anything like that," he said.
The Spanish basketball federation and Seur declined to comment Wednesday.
"The players explained what happened," Villanueva said. "We think that's enough."
It's not the first time Spanish sports has encountered questions over racist attitudes, and the photo comes at a time when Madrid is vying to host the Olympics.
Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was subjected to abuse at a Barcelona circuit in February, while former Spain coach Luis Aragones also used a racist remark about France striker Thierry Henry to motivate one of his players. Monkey chants rained down on England's black players during an international friendly against Spain in a match played in Madrid in 2004, soon after Aragones' outburst.
The federation had just signed a four-year contract extension with Chinese clothing brand Li-Ning shortly after arriving in the Chinese capital for the games.
"We have great respect for the far East and its people, some of my best friends in Toronto are originally Chinese, including one of our sponsors, the brand Li-Ning," Calderon wrote. "Whoever wants to interpret it differently is completely confusing it."
World champion Spain is 2-0 at the Olympics after rallying to beat China 85-75 Tuesday while consistently getting booed.