TOKYO – When an American athlete steps onto the podium at an Olympic event, two things catch the eye of people watching at home: the gleaming medal around their neck, and the unusual-looking mask on their face.
The white mask emblazoned with “USA” in red letters is stunningly huge, protruding about an inch in front of the face. It also has a distinctive fold pattern.
It’s a bold look that has been compared to the masked Batman villain Bane – even by Japanese organizers from the Tokyo Games.
So what is the agreement? Is it extra protection or is it mostly fashion?
The latter, it turns out.
“I think they’re designed to be comfortable and meet the aesthetic of the outfit,” said John Mason, a spokesperson for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
The mask was produced by Nike, and the company said the folds are meant to evoke the folds of Japanese origami.
“The unique origami-inspired design allows optimal airflow and air volume within the lightweight mesh mask,” Nike said in a statement to NPR.
It does not appear to have any enhanced security features. Nike stressed that the mask, which will soon be sold to the wider public, is not medical grade and should not be used as personal protection devices like the N95. It’s meant to be used for exercise, according to the company.
Mason said Team USA initially questioned whether reporters would be able to hear athletes speak through the large masks, but said “they’re working very well for it.”
He said the athletes seem happy with them.
“They all say they’re definitely unique, but they all love them. They think they’re cool. I haven’t heard any negative feedback, just lots of questions about them.”