Beijing Winter Olympics poses challenge to China’s zero-Covid policy

Just over two weeks before the start of China’s first-ever Winter Olympics, authorities in Beijing issued a warning designed to maintain the country’s strict adherence to its zero-Covid policy.

Citizens should avoid any contact with vehicles transporting participants and officials, who will spend the Games in a so-called bubble designed to avoid any contagion to the rest of the country, the traffic bureau said. In the event of an accident, they should wait for professionals to arrive rather than intervening to help.

The edict is one of many strict measures taken to avoid a coronavirus outbreak at the Olympics. The event was supposed to be a crowning achievement for an ascendant China 14 years after the Beijing Summer Games but is becoming a test of the country’s attempts to eliminate the pandemic.

China is the world’s last country to remain committed to a zero-Covid policy but the strategy is under strain after authorities locked down millions of residents amid domestic outbreaks and growing doubts about the efficacy of its home-made vaccines.

Alongside the pandemic, criticism of the host nation’s human rights record has prompted a US-led diplomatic boycott. Athletes have also been warned about Beijing’s cyber security plans for the most locked-down Games in history, with Canadian Olympians told to leave their personal tech devices at home.

China has reported relatively few infections compared with other countries but cases have increased over the past month, peaking on December 27 when authorities reported 361 confirmed infections, the most in a single day since early 2020. Confirmed cases were down to 73 on Thursday.

But officials have remained steadfast in their commitment to eradicating the virus, believing it will protect the country from the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The Beijing Organising Committee has imposed much stricter protocols for participants than at the Tokyo Summer Games last year. Athletes, sport officials and media have been encouraged to be fully vaccinated before arrival or face a 21-day quarantine. All participants’ health data will be tracked and they will be subjected to PCR testing at least once a day.

The sporting spectacle will take place within a closed loop that will separate foreign arrivals and local staff from the rest of China, with overseas participants required to depart on chartered planes pre-approved by the Beijing 2022 committee. Spectators will be limited to groups invited by organisers.

Preliminary data from the closed loop, which opened this month, showed just 1.53 per cent of accredited participants who arrived in the two weeks up to January 19 tested positive and transmission was 0.02 per cent, according to the International Olympic Committee and Beijing 2022.

But the restrictions and worries about coronavirus transmission have forced media outlets to take extraordinary measures.

NBC, the US broadcast rights holder for which it pays more than $1bn per Olympics, said none of its announcers would travel to the Games but would instead commentate from company headquarters. ESPN, the sports network, is not sending any reporters.

“We said Tokyo was going to be one of the most challenging Olympics of our lifetime — I retract that,” said Molly Solomon, president and executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage. “Beijing is unique in this regard.” 

Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC, said “these are extraordinary times and these will be extraordinary Olympic Winter Games”.

“Internally, we are quite nervous about the event,” said a local Chinese government official. “We need to create a smooth event without triggering a virus outbreak. That is a big challenge.”

Beyond the persistent threat of Covid-19, the event has been targeted by foreign governments over China’s alleged human rights abuses. The US, Canada, UK and Australia are among the countries that have announced diplomatic boycotts to protest against Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, where more than 1m Uyghurs have been detained in camps.

National Speed Skating Oval
China has constructed new venues, including the National Speed Skating Oval, to host the Games © Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A Beijing 2022 official has suggested that athletes who voice political views could be “subject to certain punishment”.

Richard Colbeck, Australia’s sports minister, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that the comments were “very concerning” and said the country’s athletes had the right to voice their opinions.

Human Rights Watch, the campaign group, had previously called on the IOC’s top sponsors to use their financial influence to address the repression of the Uyghurs. But corporate partners have evaded questions about their approach to the Beijing Games.

Many human rights advocates have urged Olympians to refrain from political statements.

“We are advising athletes not to speak up,” said Rob Koehler, director-general of Global Athlete, an international advocacy group for sportspeople. “Compete, go home, and speak when you get home. It’s a sad statement that we even have to say that.”

Maximilian Klein, a sport policy representative for Athleten Deutschland, Germany’s independent athletes’ association, warned that speaking out could lead to ramifications within China. He pointed to recent treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian who largely disappeared from public view after she alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese official.

The IOC has been criticised after Thomas Bach, the organisation’s president, joined a 30-minute video call with Peng and stated she was “safe and well”. Bach said he would meet Peng in Beijing before the start of the Games.

“We’ve seen with the Peng Shuai case that the IOC is neither willing nor capable of protecting athletes within the Olympic movement,” Klein said.

But for athletes, just making the Beijing event has been a feat in itself.

Shaun White, a US snowboarder and three-time gold medallist, was one of several stars who contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks. He will compete at his fifth Olympics after he narrowly qualified this month following his recovery.

“I’m just thankful that I started testing negative before this competition, so I’m allowed to compete,” he said. “That would have been a real frustrating position to be in where, you know, it’s the last qualifier and I can’t ride.”

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai

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