Athletes start arriving in Beijing’s Olympic bubble

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Olympic officials wearing protective gear walk through the athletes’ village in Beijing on Thursday.

BEIJING — The Beijing 2022 Olympic Villages opened Thursday, officially rolling out the welcome mat for about 2,900 athletes from about 90 nations and territories who will compete at the Winter Games that start on Feb. 4.

Like last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, these Games will be held under strict infection prevention measures necessitated by the global spread of the novel coronavirus. The recent emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant has given Games organizers an even tougher assignment than the task that confronted officials at the Tokyo Olympics.

The tight restrictions were evident to Chiho Osawa, captain of Japan’s women’s ice hockey team, which arrived at the Beijing village ahead of other Japanese athletes.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of Japan’s women’s ice hockey team arrive at the athletes’ village in Beijing on Thursday.

“I got the impression that coronavirus prevention measures in place when we arrived in China were very strict,” Osawa said in a comment released through the Japanese Olympic Committee.

Athletes and officials involved in the Beijing Games will stay inside a closed-off “bubble” to prevent contact with any outsiders. This approach also was used at the Tokyo Olympics. The huge athletes’ village in Beijing is securely surrounded by a fence, and security guards are stationed around the area. This appears aimed at preventing a repeat of incidents in which some overseas athletes left approved locations in Tokyo without permission.

Infection prevention measures inside the bubble are even tighter than those taken at the Tokyo Games. Foreign athletes and officials must take two PCR tests on two separate days within 96 hours of departing for China, and they also must give a throat and nose swab sample after arriving at the airport in Beijing. All participants and officials will, in principle, be fully vaccinated, and daily coronavirus tests are mandatory while they stay inside the bubble.

Athletes and officials also are required to wear an N95 or other medical face mask to help prevent viruses from spreading, except when eating, training or at certain other times. If an athlete records a temperature of 37.3 C or higher during a check at an athletes’ village or elsewhere, they must have their temperature taken again after a short break. At the Tokyo Games, nonwoven cloth masks were recommended, and 37.5 C was the threshold for requiring a second temperature check.

Despite these efforts, the omicron threat looms large over the Games. About 510,000 coronavirus tests have already been conducted at hotels and the media center inside the bubble, and a total of 50 people — including one team official — returned positive results. Seventy-nine positive cases also have been recorded during arrival tests conducted at Beijing Capital International Airport.

The Games organizers announced on Jan. 17 that the planned sale of tickets to residents of mainland China would not go ahead. Given that exhaustive infection prevention measures have been implemented, it is expected some invited guests, such as those connected to Olympic sponsors, and other groups will still be able to attend the Games. However, it remains unclear whether any spread of infection can be totally contained.

“It’s important that everybody understands the role that they have to play as set out in the Playbook,” an expert on preventing the spread of infection at the Beijing Games said in an online press conference held Sunday. The Playbook spells out the rules that Games participants and officials must follow.

Just one week remains until the Olympics start. The possibility that coronavirus countermeasures could be bolstered even further during this time cannot be ruled out.