The Beijing Winter Olympics pose a challenge to China’s policy of zero Covid

Just over two weeks before the start of China’s first-ever Winter Olympics, Beijing authorities issued a warning designed to maintain the country’s strict adherence to its zero-Covid policy.

Citizens should avoid any contact with vehicles transporting participants and officials who will spend the Games in the so-called balloon, designed to avoid any contamination with the rest of the country, the Traffic Bureau said. In the event of an accident, they should wait for the arrival of professionals instead of intervening to help.

The decree is one of many stringent measures taken to avoid an epidemic of coronavirus at the Olympics. The event was supposed to be the crowning glory for rising China 14 years after the Beijing Summer Games, but is becoming a test of the country’s attempts to eliminate the pandemic.

China is the last country in the world to remain committed to the policy of zero Covid, but the strategy is under pressure after authorities shut down millions of people amid internal outbreaks and growing doubts about the effectiveness of its home-made vaccines.

Along with the pandemic, criticism of the host country’s human rights has sparked a US-led diplomatic boycott. Athletes were also warned of Beijing’s cybersecurity plans for the most locked-up games in history, and Canadian Olympians were told to leave their personal technical devices at home.

China has reported relatively fewer infections than other countries, but the number has increased in the last month, peaking on December 27, when authorities reported 361 confirmed infections, the most in a day since early 2020. Confirmed cases have dropped to 73 on Thursday.

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But officials have remained steadfast in their commitment to eradicating the virus, believing it will protect the country from the highly addictive version of Omicron.

The Beijing Organizing Committee imposed much stricter protocols on participants than at last year’s Tokyo Summer Games. Athletes, sports staff and the media are encouraged to be fully vaccinated before arrival or face a 21-day quarantine. All health data of the participants will be monitored and they will be subjected to PCR testing at least once a day.

The sporting event will be held in a closed cycle, separating foreign arrivals and local staff from the rest of China, with overseas participants departing on charter planes pre-approved by the Beijing 2022 commission. Spectators will be limited to groups. invited by the organizers.

Preliminary data from the closed-loop cycle, which opened this month, show that only 1.53% of accredited participants who arrived in the two weeks to January 19 tested positive, and 0.02% passed, according to the International Olympic Committee and Beijing. 2022

But restrictions and concerns about coronavirus transmission have forced the media to take emergency measures.

NBC, the U.S. broadcast rights holder for which it paid more than $ 1 billion at the Olympics, said none of its speakers would travel to the Games, but would instead comment from the company’s headquarters. ESPN, the sports network, does not send reporters.

“We said Tokyo was going to be one of the most challenging Olympics of our lives – I’m withdrawing that,” said Molly Solomon, president and executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage. “Beijing is unique in this regard.”

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said these were exceptional times and would be an extraordinary Winter Olympics.

“Internally, we are quite nervous about the event,” said a local Chinese government official. “We need to create a smooth event without causing a viral epidemic. That’s a big challenge. ”

Beyond the constant threat from Covid-19, the event was targeted by foreign governments over alleged human rights abuses in China. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are among the countries that have announced a diplomatic boycott in protest of Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Uighurs have been detained in camps.

National speed skating, oval

China has built new venues, including the National Speed ​​Skating Oval, to host the Games © Mark Schiefelbein / AP

A spokesman for Beijing 2022 suggested that athletes who express political views may be “subject to a certain penalty”.

Richard Kolbeck, Australia’s sporting minister, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the comments were “very worrying” and said the country’s athletes had the right to express their views.

Human Rights Watch, the campaign group, had previously called on the IOC’s main sponsors to use their financial influence to tackle repression against the Uighurs. But corporate partners are avoiding questions about their approach to the Beijing Games.

Many human rights defenders have called on Olympians to refrain from making political statements.

“We advise athletes not to talk,” said Rob Koehler, CEO of Global Athlete, an international athletics advocacy group. “Compete, go home and talk when you get home. It’s sad that we even have to say it. “

Maximilian Klein, a sports representative for Athleten Deutschland, Germany’s independent athletes’ association, warned that the speech could have consequences in China. He cited the recent treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian who has largely disappeared from public view after claiming she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese official.

The IOC was criticized after Thomas Bach, the organisation’s president, joined a 30-minute video conversation with Peng and said she was “safe and sound”. Bach said he would meet with Peng in Beijing before the Games.

“We saw with the Peng Shuai case that the IOC neither wants nor is able to defend athletes within the Olympic movement,” Klein said.

But for athletes, holding the event in Beijing is a feat in itself.

Sean White, an American snowboarder and three-time gold medalist, was one of several stars to become infected with Covid-19 in recent weeks. He will compete in his fifth Olympics after qualifying closely this month after his recovery.

“I’m just grateful that I started testing negative before this race, so I’m allowed to race,” he said. “It would be a really frustrating situation to be in, where, you know, this is the last qualification and I can’t drive.”

Additional reports from Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai

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