China’s national women’s volleyball team were seen competing in N95 masks in a recent international competition, prompting wide concerns that Chinese authorities are implementing its stringent anti-COVID measures at the expense of athletes’ health.
The players wore the medical-grade respirators early in their match against Iran on Thursday at the Asian Cup in the Philippines. They were the only team to sport masks as they played, which, social media users noted, appeared to affect their performance. The players lost the first set to Iran. Most took the masks off during half-time and the team eventually won against Iran by 3-1.
China’s Volleyball Association, the team organizer, apologized on Friday and blamed the decision on miscommunication.
In a statement on Chinese social media Weibo, the group said it required athletes to wear masks when they entered the competition venue, after it learnt that some athletes from other competing teams had caught COVID-19 and some of their own team members also reported symptoms.
As the group has been unclear on whether masks were required during the match, players opted for masks to protect themselves. The team organizer said it failed to remind players to take off their respirators “due to a lack of on-site experience.” It became aware after the first set that competing in masks was not good for their health.
The apology did not appease angry Chinese social media users, who saw the statement as an attempt to shed responsibility. “Before the athletes could contract the viruses, they would already suffocate from the masks,” a top comment under the statement noted. “This is so unprofessional it made Chinese athletes a laughing stock on the international stage,” another comment read.
Some users suggested sarcastically that players should don hazmat suits for the full look and disinfect the ball when they catch it.
Masks, a mainstay of China’s zero-COVID policy, are compulsory in indoor venues and public transport, as well as crowded outdoor areas across the country. The strict measures also came into attention in the summer of 2020, when three students in different provinces died after exercising in masks during physical education classes. Some schools have since eased restrictions.
The World Health Organization advises people against donning masks during vigorous physical activity as it makes breathing more difficult.