BEIJING — For participants, the Olympics are not taking place in China so much as within a tiny universe that happens to be inside China. Officials have labeled it a “closed loop.” People inside cannot go out, and people outside cannot go in. Visitors may observe the host city only at a remove, through the windows of their hotel room or moving buses. The Beijing Olympics are composed of Beijing and the Olympics, and the two are walled off from one another.
Much like their brethren in Tokyo last summer, Beijing 2022 organizers created a bubble system designed to prevent the spread of COVID 19, keep athletes healthy and their population separate from a flood of international visitors. Beijing officials, operating under China’s Zero-COVID policy, opted for a more tightly controlled environment. The closed loop is a network of buses, hotels, security checkpoints, practice facilities and competition venues that separates Olympic activities from everyday life.
“There’s two aspects to the Games for me: the cultural aspect and the athletics aspect,” said Bill Hancock, a United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee staff member attending his 15th Olympics. “Well, the athletics aspect will be the same as always. But culturally, this will be different. All of us knew that before we came here, that you can’t go to the noodle stand down the street. You get your noodles at the press center.”
Buses ferry athletes, journalists and other accredited participants through the city. No spectators are allowed except for media, coaches, trainers and select guests, most of whom have ties to major sponsors. Barricades block the entrance to hotels, with gates opening only for buses that transport journalists along the closed loop. Workers dressed in hazmat suits, goggles and masks mill about in lobbies. Each morning, participants receive a temperature check and take a coronavirus test in the form of a long swab down the throat.
“They are not shy,” Hancock said. “But I’m kind of getting used to it. I just think, do you want to be safe? Then you do what you have to do.”
Less than six months ago in Tokyo, Olympic visitors had no restrictions after they had spent 14 days in Japan. Even during those first two weeks, they could venture out to stores in 15-minute chunks and take walks without attracting notice. Here, the only venturing out is in a bus, taxi or train reserved for Olympic purposes.
“We can’t really mingle or do too much, which is unfortunate because a big part of going to a new place is feeling the culture and seeing the different things,” said American figure skater Vincent Zhou, whose parents are from Beijing. “It is what it is right now, and I understand the precautions are necessary. Even if village life is a little bit stunted, it’s still the Olympics. It’s still super exciting.”
No matter the restrictions, officials knew the spread of the omicron variant would make COVID cases inevitable. Beijing 2022 recorded 24 new positive tests Tuesday, 16 of them either athletes or other team officials. More than 466,000 tests have produced 200 positive cases. As expected, the number of Olympics-related cases has grown as more athletes have entered the country.
“Even though we have seen more positive cases, we didn’t have large-scale spread inside the closed loop,” said Huang Chun, Beijing 2022’s deputy director of pandemic prevention. “We think the situation is under control … We don’t think we are considering making major adjustments to the measures, because we think it is very effective so far.”
The United States became the latest country with a high-profile athlete who tested positive. Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, a three-time Olympic medalist at her fourth Games who entered as the world’s top-ranked monobob slider, tested positive on Saturday, two days after she arrived. Meyers Taylor is asymptomatic, she wrote in an Instagram post, and remained hopeful she could test negative two consecutive days — the requirement for an athlete to return — in time to compete. In the meantime, she is staying in an isolation hotel.
“And yes I am completely isolated,” Meyers Taylor wrote.
At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, athletes constantly discussed the stress of daily testing and distancing measures. Winter Olympians at least have the advantage of six additional months of training and competing through a pandemic, of the abnormal becoming normal.
“In the last two years, we’ve gotten really — I don’t even want to call it comfortable — but we’ve gotten really used to the protocols and adapting and trying to make the most of the situation,” U.S. figure skater Jason Brown said.
Still, they worried about an outside factor eliminating them from a competitive opportunity that arrives only once every four years.
“The stresses are incalculable,” U.S. women’s hockey coach Joel Johnson said. ” … We talked as a team just today [about] the fact that our team is going to be so close just because they’re the one group of people that can kind of stay in the same protocol together.”
Those protocols, unthinkable just two years ago, are now viewed as the necessary cost of making this competition viable.
“It’s the Olympics. You can’t not enjoy it, right?” said U.S. hockey star Hilary Knight, a four-time Olympian. ” … It’s not easy wearing a mask in practice, it’s not fun. But to have an opportunity to be a part of this group and be in that room is extremely special and is not one you can take for granted. So if it means wearing a mask on the ice for practice or in the room, you’re just going to do it.”
Pandemic signifiers predominate in Beijing, from Plexiglas at dining tables to the masks several figure skaters wore at practice Tuesday. But the majority of stress, athletes said, occurred before arriving. They had to take a battery of tests before boarding flights. At the airport upon arrival, they took one last coronavirus test, then waited in their hotel rooms before finding out whether they could continue last-minute training or would get sent to an isolation hotel, their competitive fate uncertain.
“The worst part was actually before you got here,” said Norwegian curler Kristin Skaslien, a reigning bronze medalist in mixed doubles. “All the testing up front. Arriving at the airport and waiting for the test results there. After coming here to the Olympic Village, it feels safe.”
Earlier this month, U.S. snowboard officials convened a virtual meeting to calm athletes who had misgivings about traveling out of fear they would test positive and get isolated in a Chinese hotel or hospital. Athletes from other sports felt similar tension, but they have worried less since arriving.
“I’m much calmer now being in the village,” Brown said. “Now it feels much more routine. Waking up in the morning, we get our coronavirus test, we go on with our day. But the last couple weeks have been really, really stressful.”
The arrival of athletes and journalists coincided with Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday of the year in China. The pandemic muted the celebration, but some locals attempted to provide visitors a sampling. At one hotel, greeters passed out tanghulu — sour apples glazed with sugar on a stick — and hung red flags on room doors.
In the coming days, athletes’ focus will shift. For many of them, the competition will serve as a relief, regardless of the result.
“We have talked a lot about it and talked about our feelings so we don’t lock things up in ourself,” Skaslien said. “It’s been very stressful. It has. But now we’re here, and it feels safe.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo and Barry Svrluga contributed to this story.