Mask-wearing by China's elite athletes sparks social media storm

After losing the first set, China's national women's volleyball team eventually won the match, 3-1. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's national women's volleyball team were struggling in their first Asian Cup set versus Iran until half-time, when they removed the masks they were wearing to protect themselves against Covid-19 and turned things around.

After losing the first set, they eventually won the Thursday (Aug 25) match, 3-1. The Asian Volleyball Confederation Cup for Women, which is taking place in Pasig, the Philippines, runs from Aug 21-29.

Despite the win, the episode has sparked a social media furore in China, where strict zero-tolerance pandemic restrictions mandate universal mask-wearing, mandatory quarantines and constant virus testing.

But the widespread outrage over the athletes competing in masks reflected a growing unease with the zealotry of the approach, as viewers blamed authorities for sacrificing the players' health for the sake of the country's Covid Zero strategy.

China's volleyball association later apologised on Weibo, saying the players initially wore masks to protect themselves since no clear rules were given on mask-wearing. The group said it failed to remind the players to remove their masks due to lack of experience.

"We realised wearing masks was bad for athletes' health in the second half of the first set, and the team promptly reminded the players to take off their masks and finish the rest of the game," the association said.

Zero tolerance

The incident is the latest example of how Covid Zero is being taken to the extreme by some in China, inciting backlash from disgruntled citizens.

President Xi Jinping has insisted on the approach throughout the pandemic, even after the rest of the world dropped most or all of their mitigation measures and now lives with the virus as an accepted if unwelcome facet of life.

While there is no definitive data that shows mask-wearing interferes with breathing or athletic performance, the situation sparked heated and wide-spread discussion among Chinese social media users. Most found fault with the team's coaches and managers, saying those in authority chose Covid Zero over their players' health.

"Whoever made up this decision should do an intense workout for one hour wearing a mask," one angry social media user wrote. The hashtag tied to the controversy on Weibo has generated more then 40 million reads.

The widespread outrage over the athletes competing in masks reflected a growing unease with the zealotry of the approach. PHOTO: AFP

Hu Xijin, the former chief editor of the Communist Party's Global Times newspaper, said the incident was not political or tied to Covid Zero. Instead, it developed because of the specific situation at the match.

"I have always been opposed to excessive virus prevention," Hu said. "I have seen reports of women volleyball teams wearing masks during games because uncertainties of infections on the field, but wearing masks for strenuous sports is apparently bad for people."

Numerous scientific reports show that wearing masks during exercise does not significantly affect respiration, heart rate, oxygen levels or athletic performance, although it does alter the perceived level of effort and increases discomfort - especially at high intensity levels.

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