HONG KONG — Their comeback was impressive, but the victory for China’s national women’s volleyball team drew more attention than normal because its members were wearing facemasks at the start of the game.
In the opening set of their match against Iran at the Asian Volleyball Confederation Cup, being held in the Philippines, the Chinese players were wearing face coverings as they lost 24-26.
But after that, the masks came off and they took the final three sets comfortably winning 25-19, 25-10 and 25-13 and came out top of Group A.
China, the current champions, will now face Australia in the quarterfinals Saturday.
While some praised the victory, many on social media were quick to condemn the decision to play wearing masks, and a hashtag tied to the controversy has generated almost 80 million views on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
“Who lost his mind and made the decision?” one user wrote. “Such strenuous exercise is already breathless.”
Another wrote: “Don’t you have any common sense?”
Others used it as an opportunity to question China’s uncompromising “zero-Covid” policy, which has placed hundreds of millions of people under various restrictions as the rest of the world has embraced a policy of living with the coronavirus in the pandemic.
One accused the Chinese Volleyball Association of a “Covid prevention stunt,” and another wrote, “The whole world is not taking the pandemic that seriously anymore. If the Chinese women’s volleyball team is really afraid of being infected, why not just go back home?”
After the women’s victory, the association apologized with a statement on Weibo, saying that the players initially wore masks to “protect themselves” as “no clear rules were provided on mask-wearing by the organizing committee.”
Before the game, some symptoms had been reported among a few team members, it said, adding that they had also learned that players on other teams had been infected.
“We did not remind the athletes on the field to remove their masks in time due to our lack of on-spot experience,” it said.
“We realized 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 statement added.
However, there is no evidence that wearing masks interferes with breathing or athletic performance, according to the World Health Organization and other medical organizations. In a 2020 study, Canadian researchers found “no discernable differences” in exercise performance when young, healthy athletes wore masks.