Athletes will need to be vaccinated – or face a lengthy quarantine – tested daily and wear masks when not competing or training. It’s okay to clap to please teammates, not chant. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be placed in isolation and unable to compete until cleared for leave.
Welcome to the Beijing Olympics, where strict containment measures will aim to create a virus-proof “bubble” for thousands of international visitors at a time when Omicron is ramping up infections globally.
The containment protocols will be similar to this summer’s Tokyo Games, but much stricter. It won’t be a stretch in Beijing, which has maintained a “zero COVID” policy since the beginning of the pandemic.
Still, China’s ability to stick to its zero-tolerance approach at the national level is already being tested by the highly permeable Omicron variant, which is more contagious than earlier variants of the virus and protects against vaccines. Better to avoid.
With just weeks left for the Games to start on February 4, more than 20 million people in six cities are under lockdown following recent outbreaks.
Here’s how the games will work.
Do athletes have to be vaccinated?
Yes, athletes and other participants, including team staff and news media, need to be fully vaccinated to be allowed into designated Olympic areas without completing the 21-day quarantine. Those areas would include the Olympic Village, sports venues, other select venues, and dedicated transportation.
This is different from the Tokyo Games, where participants were not required to be vaccinated.
Participants are considered to have been fully vaccinated according to the definitions outlined by their countries. Before boarding their flights, everyone will also have to pass two recent negative tests from approved laboratories.
The risk of being sidelined by a positive test is adding to the pressure for athletes.
Mogul skier Hannah Soar said she is avoiding contact with people indoors and behaving as if everyone has the virus: “We are basically at the point of acting like March 2020.”
What about daily life?
Upon arrival at the airport in Beijing, participants’ temperatures will be taken and tested with throat and nasal swabs. An Olympic official who recently arrived at the site said at a press briefing that the process took them 45 minutes, although the timing could vary, organizers note.
A bus will then take the people to their designated accommodation, where they will wait for six hours for the test results to be transferred to the approved areas. The ban on movement within that “closed loop” is intended to close any potential contact between Olympic participants and the local population.
Throat swabs for the test will be required daily for all participants. In Tokyo, participants spit into vials for antigen tests.
Standard containment measures are being encouraged, such as ventilated rooms and a distance of about 3 feet (1 m) from others – or 6 feet (2 m) from athletes.
With some exceptions, N95 or equivalent masks will also be required in areas indoors and outdoors, such as when people are eating or drinking. The dining hall will have partitions and the seating capacity will be reduced to help maintain distance.
In places where distance is not possible, such as elevators, talking is not permitted. Staff will be deployed in key areas to guide people and ensure protocol is followed.
What happens if an athlete tests positive?
In Tokyo, organizers say 33 athletes tested positive during the Games. Of these, 22 were withdrawn from the competition. Despite strict precautions in Beijing, experts say there are likely to be some positive tests, especially with Omicron in the game.
If an athlete or other participant tests positive but does not have symptoms, they will need to go into isolation at a dedicated hotel. They will be provided with food and can open their windows for fresh air, but will not be able to leave their rooms, which organizers say will be about 270 square feet (25 sq m).
Athletes can request fitness equipment for training.
People without symptoms can leave the isolation after two days of negative test. Organizers say those who test positive will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but it may still be too late for athletes to compete.
As a general rule, organizers say the panel will review those who test positive for more than 14 days.
Those who test positive and have symptoms have to go into isolation at the hospital. They will also need two days of negative tests to be let loose, as well as three days of normal temperature and subsidence of symptoms.
Organizers have said athletes who recover after testing positive before the Games will also be assessed “in a more flexible manner” on a case-by-case basis.
Will there be fans?
Visitors from abroad will not be allowed. For local fans, Beijing’s organizers say they are finalizing the rules for their attendance.
It is unclear how the recent outbreak around China will affect decisions. But organizers of the Tokyo Games also planned to allow some home fans before scrapping the idea due to a surge in local affairs. The result was surreal scenes of athletes competing in empty stadiums.
Even if some fans are allowed into Beijing, their attendance will be muted. Everyone is being asked to clap instead of shout or sing, as was the plan in Tokyo.
Can this work?
Despite the Omicron-fueled boom in many parts of the world, including China, organizers may still be able to pull off the Olympics without fearing as much disruption.
Olympic athletes are highly motivated to avoid infection so they can compete, said Dr. Sandro Gallia, a public health expert at Boston University. And even though it’s tough with Omicron, he said it’s no secret what people need to do to avoid infection — take prevention measures, such as limiting contact with others.