Becoming an Olympian is a long and unpredictable journey rife with hurdles. But those arriving in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games face yet another daunting challenge: COVID-19.
Even before the Games begin on Feb. 4, the pandemic is taking its toll. Olympic hopefuls who test positive days before their departure, such as Russian figure skater Mikhail Kolyada, are withdrawing from the competition, since they won’t be able to fulfill the requirement of testing negative twice before their flights.
Hanging over every athlete arriving at Beijing International Airport is the specter of testing positive, beginning with a deep nasopharyngeal swab at the airport. All athletes are required to be vaccinated, or receive a medical exemption and comply with a 21-day quarantine if they are not. They also have to test negative twice before their flight—at least 96 and 72 hours before boarding. Still, with the Omicron variant so widespread and adept at sparking new infections, even among the vaccinated, breakthrough infections in people who are immunized are possible, although not very common. So far, 54 athletes and team officials have tested positive after arriving in Beijing, and that number is expected to rise despite the careful measures the Chinese government is taking as more than 3,000 athletes, coaches, and their support staff fly in for the Games.
“You’re like just so stressed about making sure you’re as safe as you can be, yet at the same time, there’s no way to be 100% safe,” U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer told reporters.
Russian biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova tested positive at the airport, and again with a confirmatory test, which means she won’t be able to compete, as she revealed on her social media account. “Unfortunately my Olympic dream will remain just a dream” she said.
Beijing Olympic and health officials have created a closed-loop system designed to adhere to the Chinese government’s dynamic zero-COVID policy, which relies on regular testing to detect infections and rigid isolation requirements to prevent spread of cases. In order to compete, athletes must follow protocols for entering the loop and remain inside it. Those rules may become more stringent if cases start to mount, or if health officials become concerned about outbreaks in the Olympic “bubble.”
That starts with the pre-departure testing, and with special chartered flights into Beijing. These flights have been approved by the Chinese government and depart from designated hub cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Paris. The flights only carry Olympics-related passengers, and represent the first phase of the closed loop. Once inside the loop, athletes can only use dedicated Olympic transport. (Bus drivers and staff on dedicated high-speed train cars that connect the city to mountain events will also adhere to the strict testing and isolation policies.)
If athletes test positive at the airport, they must take an additional test to confirm the result. Even if that second test is negative, they need to take a third; tests are scheduled daily at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. Until those results are available, the athlete must remain in their assigned room in the Olympic Village, and, if they have a roommate, both should keep their masks on and distance from each other. If the third test is negative, the athlete is allowed to leave the room and train and compete as planned.
If the additional test is positive, however, and the athlete does not have any symptoms, they must move to an isolation hotel—a separate facility designated by Beijing officials to house people who are positive but aren’t symptomatic. If the athlete has symptoms—fever, cough, or anything else—then that athlete is transferred to a hospital to recieve medical attention. Athletes can refuse to be admitted to the hospital if their symptoms aren’t severe, but they must sign a waiver taking responsibility for their health and remain in the isolation hotel.
Athletes in the isolation facility get daily PCR tests, temperature checks, and any other medical attention they need. In order to leave isolation, they must have two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart and display no symptoms of COVID-19. They can then return to training and competition, though it generally takes several days to test negative after infection, and some athletes may have missed their events.
There’s another COVID-19 worry looming over the athletes. Even if they stay negative, they could be identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive. According to the Olympic playbook, that means anyone who has at least 15 minutes of maskless contact with someone who tests positive. On the plane, a close contact is someone sitting in the same row or up to two rows in front of or behind an infected person. A close contact can also be someone who interacted with an infected person for 15 minutes or more without a high-quality face mask (KN95, N95, or FFP2).
Athletes identified as a close contact can continue to train and compete, but must take extra steps for 14 days: quarantine in a single room, arrange for dedicated Olympic vehicles in which they are the only passenger, eat alone either in the room or at a separate table in dining facilities, wear a mask except when eating or training, and avoid interacting with others. Most importantly, they can’t train indoors, and their national Olympic federation must make arrangements to bring fitness or training equipment to the athlete’s room, or set up separate training facilities and times. The athletes also have to get tested and have their temperature taken twice a day by medical personnel who come to their room, and they’re required to answer questions about their health status. Six hours before they compete, they must take a PCR test, which can be timed with their other tests to avoid getting tested more than twice a day.
Already, Beijing officials have been criticized for translating the country’s zero-COVID strategy to the Olympics. Under pressure for adopting a PCR test threshold that was more stringent than World Health Organization standards—which meant people might test positive under the Chinese standards but not by other, internationally accepted ones—Beijing Olympic officials have loosened the criteria by which people would test positive.
Still, while athletes and national delegations support necessary requirements for keeping the Olympics safe from COVID-19, the virus hangs over the Games like a gallows, ready to terminate long-held dreams and upend the podium if favorites can’t compete. “All the partying will be afterwards,” French ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron and gold medal favorite in Beijing told Rolling Stone. “Until then, we’re trying not to test positive.”
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