Russian hockey stars ‘found it difficult to breathe’ in masks during Olympic fiasco
Players from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) women’s ice hockey team have spoken about the unusual events which saw them don medical masks for their match with Canada in Beijing on Monday.
Stars from both teams took to the ice for the group-stage encounter at the Wukesong Sports Center wearing face coverings in an apparent compromise so that the game could go ahead.
The match had already been delayed by around one hour as the Canadian team reportedly refused to take to the ice without confirmation of the Covid test results taken by their rivals earlier in the day.
Both teams had been tested in line with new International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rules, but there were delays with the results being returned.
Players, officials and staff all started the match in medical masks, although the ROC team removed theirs after finally receiving negative test results before the third period began.
The Canadian team opted to keep their masks on throughout the match, which they won 6-1.
After the bizarre scenes, players, officials and organizers reacted to the incident.
“Perhaps playing in masks threatened the health of athletes: both ours and the Canadians’,” said Russian goaltender Maria Sorokina, according to Championat.
“But the decision was made, we were ready to play under any conditions. We took the [Covid] tests as expected, it was nothing special.
“We came today to play, we warmed up. The Canadians were not wearing masks. Then suddenly we came out for the match, but they didn’t.
“We didn't even know about their decision. It wasn’t until we were out on the ice that something was wrong.
“We’re athletes. Whatever they tell us, we’ll do. We were asked to wear masks, and we agreed so as not to embarrass anyone.
“For the third period, we were allowed to play without masks thanks to the negative tests which came during the game.
“Breathing in masks is difficult. If it’s hard to breathe when you just walk in it, then you can imagine what it’s like to play in them when you want more air, but it’s not enough,” Sorokina added.
“It’s also inconvenient that the mask fits over the eyes. But these are an unusual Olympics, with events like this it will go down in history.”
ROC teammate Polina Bolgareva also commented on the difficulty of wearing masks during the match.
“It is very difficult to play in masks, dizziness begins. But both teams were in the same conditions,” said the 23-year-old, according to the Match TV Telegram channel.
“Masks in China are denser than ours – oxygen is not supplied at all. But we are all on an equal footing. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do. The match was important for us, we had to play.”
Fellow ROC star Anna Shibanova said the Canadians had been within their rights to wait to begin the match.
“Most likely, the Canadians were right, because our PCR tests were not available, so they asked to play in masks. Well, we began to play in masks until the tests came,” Shibanova said.
“No one was going to talk about the cancelation of the match or a technical defeat. Everyone tried to resolve the issue so that we would come out to play. We were asked to wait – we waited.”
ROC head coach Evgeny Bobariko reiterated that the team had been ready to play whatever the circumstances.
“We wouldn’t refuse the match in any case. Masked or not, whatever,” he was quoted as saying by the ROC Telegram account.
“We didn't even think about protests. We were just waiting for the decision when we should start the game.
“The test results came before the third period, and we were told that you can play without masks. We took off our masks because it is very difficult to play them. Breathing is very difficult.
“Why the Canadians did not do this is a question for them. They have enough players, they were in the lead and, perhaps, they wanted to eliminate the risk of infection in this way.”
Canadian defender Erin Ambrose was quoted as saying that their team doctor had assured them before the match that it was fine to play in masks.
The Canadian team had reportedly prepared for this year’s Games by training with masks on in their pre-Olympic bubble.
Ahead of the match, an IIHF statement had simply said that the decision to play in masks had been taken “out of caution and concern for the health and safety of the players.”
IIHF president Luc Tardif added that they would work closely with local organizers and health authorities to ensure that the situation wasn’t repeated.
Adding to the drama, it was later confirmed that three Russian players – none of whom featured against Canada – had returned positive tests for Covid-19.
Canadian forward Emily Clark took part in the pre-game warmup but was removed from the line-up by coach Troy Ryan and the medical team, reportedly because of a dubious Covid test result.
Along with defending champions Americans – who they face on Tuesday – the Canadian team are among the hot favorites for gold in Beijing.
The ROC team is seen as being among a crop of squads who could challenge for bronze. Their time in Beijing has already been severely disrupted by Covid, with six players testing positive ahead of their opening match against Switzerland last week.
The ROC team still won that match 5-2 but suffered defeat against the USA at the weekend. The Russians next play Finland at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Tuesday.
All five teams from Group A will qualify for the quarterfinals due to their world rankings, and will be joined by three nations from Group B.