China Plans ‘Closed-Loop’ Bubble for Winter Olympics

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday released a preliminary set of health protocols for the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing that suggested that the next Olympics, set to start on Feb. 4, could be the most extraordinarily restricted large-scale sporting event since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place in what organizers called a “closed-loop management system,” a bubblelike environment in which athletes, officials, broadcasters, journalists and a large Games work force will be forced to eat, sleep, work and compete, without leaving, from the day they arrive to the moment they depart.

Anyone, including athletes, intending to enter this bubble has two choices: Arrive in China fully vaccinated or prepare to spend the first 21 days in Beijing in solitary quarantine.

And while spectators will be allowed to return to competition venues after being largely barred from the recent Summer Games in Tokyo, entry will be limited to those residing in mainland China.

A more detailed plan for the Games is set to be released in late October, but it is already clear that Beijing Olympic organizers and the Chinese government will attempt to implement a level of control — of close to 3,000 athletes, as well as several thousand more Games participants, including international journalists, volunteers and venue staff members — beyond anything seen before at the Games.

Organizers of Beijing 2022 presented these initial protocols to the I.O.C. executive board on Wednesday. The I.O.C., in a statement, offered its full support for the restrictions.

Considering the common objective of delivering a safe Games, it said, “the I.O.C. and I.P.C. fully respect the principles established by Beijing 2022.”

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo featured a far more porous health protocol. Participants were not required to be vaccinated, nor sequestered if they were not, and while they were asked to try to remain within Games-affiliated venues, they were still afforded plenty of opportunities to interact with the outside world, including at convenience stores and local restaurants for takeout meals. Members of the local news media and the venue work forces in Tokyo, meanwhile, were allowed to commute to Olympic venues from their homes. And after a 14-day period of more harsh restrictions, all visitors to the Games were given the freedom to move about the city as they wished.

China enforces strict quarantine rules for foreign visitors.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

The so-called closed-loop management system planned in China, the I.O.C. said, would encompass “all Games-related areas, including arrival and departure, transport, accommodation, catering, competitions, and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.”

The I.O.C. statement suggested that no one inside the system would be allowed to venture out of it for any reason: “Within the closed loop, participants will be allowed to move only between Games-related venues for training, competitions and work. A dedicated Games transport system will be put in place.”

Those within the bubble also will be subject to daily coronavirus testing.

Beijing 2022’s vaccination requirement also represents an unprecedented step during this pandemic. No major sports league in the world has a similar mandate. The I.O.C. on Wednesday said that all vaccines recognized by the World Health Organization would be accepted and that athletes who asked for medical exemptions would have their individual cases “considered.”

Many prominent athletes around the world remain unvaccinated, and it remains to be seen how many potential Olympians will decide to skip the Beijing Games or subject themselves to a three-week quarantine rather than accept vaccination in order to gain access to the Games. Last week, the United States Olympics and Paralympic Committee announced that all of its athletes were required to be vaccinated by Dec. 1 if they hoped to represent the delegation next year in China.

In another departure from the Tokyo Games, where fans were banned altogether, spectators will be allowed at competition venues in Beijing in some capacity. But, according to the I.O.C., tickets will be limited to those residing in mainland China “who meet the requirements of the COVID-19 countermeasures.” The specifics of those requirements, the organization said, were still under discussion.

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