Thousands of game-related staff, volunteers, cleaners, cooks and coach drivers will be cooked in so-called ‘closed loop’ for weeks.
Beijing a month away from hosting the Winter Olympics shut down its games “bubble” for what is expected to be the world’s toughest mass sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China, where the coronavirus was first detected by the end of 2019, has pursued a zero-tolerance strategy against COVID-19. It now follows the same approach to limit the pandemic’s potential impact on the February 4-20 Winter Olympics and subsequent Paralympic Games.
As of Tuesday, thousands of game-related staff, volunteers, cleaners, cooks and coach drivers will be cocooned for weeks in the so-called “closed loop” with no direct physical access to the outside world. Most large venues are outside the capital.
The isolationist approach contrasts with the COVID-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo – held between July 23 and August 8, 2021 – which allowed for some movement in and out for volunteers and other staff.
Journalists from around the world and about 3,000 athletes are expected to start arriving in the city in the coming weeks and will remain in the bubble from the moment they land until they leave the country.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine when they land. Inside, everyone will be tested daily and must wear face masks at all times.
The system includes dedicated transportation between venues, with even “closed-loop” high-speed rail systems operating in parallel with those open to the public. It will be operational until the end of March and possibly early April.
Fans will not be part of the “closed loop” and organizers will have to ensure that they do not mix with athletes and others inside the bubble.
Reporting from Zhangjiakou, on the outskirts of Beijing, Katrina Yu of Al Jazeera said that although resorts around the capital had their busiest season this winter due to the Olympics, “this whole area will be forced to close in the weeks before the Games to control the spread of the coronavirus ”.
Authorities are anxious to prevent any outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant from spreading across the country, so people living in China should also be placed in quarantine when they leave the bubble to go home.
Still, many were looking forward to the matches.
“Of course I am very excited and proud because the Winter Olympics will be held in my motherland,” a woman in Zhangjiakou told Al Jazeera. “It makes me very happy, these sports have become very popular in China in recent years.”
Yu said the Chinese government had poured billions of dollars into preparing to host the Games “including investing in Italian snowmaking equipment to help build its young winter sports industry”.
In a recent interview, Zhao Weidong, head of the Olympic Organizing Committee’s media division, said Beijing was “fully prepared”.
“Hotels, transportation, accommodation, as well as our science and technology-led Olympic Winter Games projects are all ready,” Zhao told AFP news agency on Friday.
Yet the pandemic was not the only challenge facing organizers.
Some Western governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, diplomatic boycotts announced in protest against the treatment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Chinese embassy in Washington described the boycott as “political manipulation”.
Analysts say additional boycotts by the European Union or Asian countries will be very embarrassing for China.
“No teams are going to boycott the Games themselves,” Steve Tsang, of the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, told Al Jazeera. “But if the English-speaking democracies are followed by other big countries, the effect will be much greater.”