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The Beijing 2022 Closed Loop

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Volunteers walk outside the closed loop "bubble" surrounding venues of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on a hazy day in Beijing, China, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Michael Pavitt |

Closed loop appears in 45 different insidethegames.biz articles in recent months, since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Beijing 2022 coined the term in the build-up to the second of the double bill of COVID-19 pandemic impacted Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The term appeared an attempt from organizers to differentiate from the “bubble” in operation during last year’s delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

The early indications have been that the system in place at Beijing 2022 will be far stricter than the one in operation last year.

There have been understandable refinements compared to Tokyo 2020, which saw COVID-19 liaison officers (CLOs) required to submit activity plans for their respective delegations, detailing where an individual might be at any point in time.

Our insidethegames CLO for the Games was less than complimentary when asked to review the system, describing the process as “awful”.

“It was largely because nothing they sent worked, and that was when they did send anything, the lack of communication was dreadful,” the review continued. “We’d go weeks without hearing from them, then all of a sudden they would be like ‘we need you to fill this form out and the deadline was yesterday’.”

The activity plan process had mixed results, with some travelling to airports to board flights uncertain over whether their plans had been approved. The futility of the process was highlighted by a case where one of the outstanding activity plans was rejected on the penultimate day of the Games.

The activity plans and the three-day quarantine after arrival that were in place for Tokyo 2020 have been scrapped for Beijing 2022, with Games-related personnel having been separated entirely from the general population in China for the duration of the next month before travelling home.

Similarities remain, however, with the Online Check-In and Health Report app (OCHA) mobile application used for Tokyo 2020 having been succeeded by My2022.

The Chinese application has already been the source of controversy in the build-up to the Games.

Research carried out by the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in Canada said the app has “simple but devastating flaws” that would make users’ sensitive information at risk of being hacked.

Participants have been required to submit health and travel information from 14 days prior to their departure to the Chinese capital, comprised of the same daily temperature checks as Tokyo 2020, as well as declarations over your fatigue and muscle soreness, to how well your bowels are feeling on any given day.

Two COVID-19 test results from within 96 hours of departure, including one from a Chinese embassy approved laboratory, and vaccination certificates have also had to be provided.

Coupled with concerns over data protection, travel to the Games has depended on the information being submitted being approved. A green QR code grants entry to China when coupled with the official Games accreditation.

The process has certainly been more refined than the one operating for Tokyo 2020, but the application has certainly led to unease given the instructions issued by many National Olympic Committees to their delegations to use burner phones throughout the Games over spyware fears.

Having jumped through the hoops required, there was a degree of relief when the green QR Code granted was confirmed to have granted access to board the plane or planes to travel to Beijing for the Games.

The unease shifted somewhat when aboard, with memories of lottery of COVID-19 close contact cases still fresh. Our colleague Philip Barker bizarrely became a global news story last year, after being quarantined for the first part of Tokyo 2020 after being deemed the close contact of a positive COVID-19 case on his flight.

Germany’s four-time Olympic luge gold medallist Natalie Geisenberger expressed the concerns of many in the build-up to the Games, after experiencing a similar scenario during the Beijing 2022 test event in November.

The IOC and Beijing 2022 have attempted to reassure delegations, with playbooks saying that athletes and Games participants defined as having an “essential role” will be able to continue their roles even if they are deemed a close contact to a person who has tested positive for coronavirus.

A “special regime” is expected to be followed at the Games for close contact cases, which will consist of twice daily testing and additional arrangements for travel and dining.

Nonetheless, your fortunes do feel tied to those around you on the flight. I personally now feel far more invested in the fortunes of the Jamaican four-man bobsleigh team than I’d ever expected to be.

The arrival into Beijing was vastly more serious than the welcome to Tokyo.

I woke up on a plane to find myself facing a temperature gun as one of the pre-arrivals checks. Airport staff were also decked out in hazmat suits to greet arrivals off the plane, offering a reminder of how limited travel to and from China has been throughout the pandemic.

The Winter Olympics certainly feels like an exception in China, reflected by one journalist commentating that they had been the only person on their flight to the Games. Only Games participants were present in the airport, serving as a further reminder of the exceptional circumstances.

Once off the plane, participants are then required to complete the latest health declaration, and are then steered towards the PCR testing area on arrival.

I had been warned that the process was brutal, with The Australian newspaper quoting one delegation as complaining that the tester had “tried to take out the brain and make a hole in a throat.” I certainly have sympathy for that point of view, although the jabbing my nose received was lessened by the tester declaring me to be “handsome”.

Eyes still watering, the first Beijing 2022 sign is seen with the Olympic and Paralympic Games mascots depicted either side.

After having accreditations validated and luggage collected, Games personnel are ferried onto buses by more officials in hazmat suits before being taken to the various hotels. The hotels are gated, opening and closing to allow for the transportation from one Games venue to another, reinforcing the separation from the general population.

On arrival to hotels, Games personnel are required to wait in their rooms before being notified of the outcome of their test result from the airport. The system marks another adaptation from Tokyo 2020, where you were required to wait at the airport before discovering your result.

Whereas Tokyo 2020 required participants to be tested every four days, the Omicron variant has contributed to daily tests being required at Beijing 2022.

To date organisers have reported 139 positive tests among Olympic participants since January 23 – the day the closed loop officially came into effect. The tally includes 39 athletes and team officials and 100 designated as other stakeholders.

The daily tests are administered from booths outside the hotels, with yet more hazmat suited individuals swabbing mouths in what will become a routine for the next month.

At times the journey into the closed loop had the feel of being inserted into a plot of a disaster movie, but it is instead the reality of these very strange upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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