Olympics 2021: playing masked volleyball, is it really a good idea?

They are the Olympic champions of sanitary passes. Brazilian volleyball players Mauricio Borges, Lucas Saatkamp and volleyball player Macris Carneiro have an amazing peculiarity, that of playing with a mask. Of course, nothing in the rules of the Olympic Games imposes such a choice on them: their teammates also play with their faces uncovered. But these examples inspired the Secretary of Health of the State of Rio de Janeiro, which relayed these images to encourage the population: “They don’t take off their masks, neither inside nor outside the field. Do like them, protect yourself and those you love.”

This zeal is not linked to the Japanese context, since Macris Carneiro started wearing the mask late last year, during a championship meeting against Pinhais. This team had just faced a formation in Sao Paulo, an area heavily affected by the epidemic. “As a precaution, I preferred to use the mask and I intend to use it as much as possible”, she explained on a daily basis O Tempo (in Portuguese). The player, moreover, had been marked by a painful experience. Sick of Covid-19, her uncle had been plunged into a coma and hospitalized for 40 days.

Same thing for “Luçao”. In November, the player was afraid of passing the disease on to his wife and 4-year-old son, who suffered from bronchitis. In addition, he was in full preparation for the Olympics. “I was trying not to catch the virus, because I knew that if it happened (…), I would partly lose the benefit of physical preparation”, he explained to the Brazilian channel G1 (in Portuguese). The player still contracted the disease, without too many symptoms, and then his wife became pregnant. No time to take off the mask.

“I don’t feel any more difficulties. It’s the same to train with or without a mask. Why not use it, since it protects me and my teammates?”

Lucas Saatkamp, ​​Brazilian volleyball team player

to the G1 chain

By carefully observing the encounters, it is possible to see him remove his mask, very briefly. “Luçao” indeed concedes a little embarrassment during the “rally”, when the exchanges drag on around fifteen seconds. “It bothers a bit, especially for cardio”, he said on Radio Jornal (in Portuguese). “Fortunately, our sport demands above all explosiveness” and brief efforts. In any case, he did not notice any drop in his performance during the championship. Once again, his sporting qualities have therefore opened the doors to the national team, where he has played since 2007.

The surgical mask does not pose any problem in normal times. But intense and prolonged efforts can increase the resistance of the fabric. “When you breathe normally, the current volume of air is 600 ml, multiplied by 12 times every minute. This is about 8 liters., explains to franceinfo the pulmonologist Bruno Crestani, vice-president of the Breath Foundation. But during an effort, it can go up to 40 to 50 liters per minute. ” The mask opposes a resistance to the air flow and the body must adapt accordingly. “The respiratory muscles perceive this resistance to air flow and must increase their work to maintain the necessary oxygenation., continues Bruno Crestani. That’s what must give that unpleasant feeling to the player you’re talking about. ”

It is not really the oxygen level that is the problem, but rather the extra muscular effort put in to achieve good ventilation. Humidity, too, can be a source of inconvenience. “The air you exhale is at 37 degrees and it is saturated with moisture, which will saturate the holes in the mask and further increase the resistance.” In case of excessively long phases of play, our Brazilians must undoubtedly increase the ventilatory work, and therefore provide an additional effort. But during brief exchanges, with recovery times, this aspect is less critical. By hypothesis, the physiognomy of a volleyball game offers this leeway.

Brazilian player Macris Carneiro during the match against South Korea, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tokyo (Japan).  (YURI CORTEZ / AFP)

The subject is enough “anecdotal”, believes Bruno Crestani, and the scientific literature on the subject is scarce. In September, Israeli researchers had nevertheless written that a “moderate to intense physical activity [était] possible and safe “, in an article (in English) in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. In this study based on stress tests, they observed “minor changes in certain physiological parameters”, and in particular a slight increase in the level of carbon dioxide in participants equipped with surgical masks and FFP2.

Last year, in France, the wearing of the mask was first judged (PDF Format) “incompatible with physical activity” by the Ministry of Sports. Then, in February, Minister Roxana Maracineanu unveiled an AFNOR standard of “barrier mask for sport”, for manufacturers. This step allowed many companies to enter the market, and many products are now available for sale. Last month, the UFC-Que Choisir association was rather convinced by the four products tested, but as part of an outdoor activity of medium intensity. Between Sunday jogger and Olympic champion, there is still a world.

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