2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: A Sporting Event in Captivity

By Ben Liang
Ben Liang
Ben Liang
and Jessica Mao
Jessica Mao
Jessica Mao
Jessica Mao is a writer for The Epoch Times with a focus on China-related topics. She began writing for the Chinese-language edition in 2009.
January 27, 2022 Updated: January 29, 2022

New Analysis

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games are just one week away, yet the fast-spreading Omicron variant has hit Beijing amid emerging COVID-19 clusters across the country.

The surge in cases has pressured the regime to employ the most stringent health protocols to keep the virus at bay, leading many to believe this will be the most unpleasant sporting event in Olympic history.

On Wednesday, Beijing reported 14 local COVID-19 cases, the highest daily count in its current outbreak, according to Reuters. The Chinese capital has confirmed 55 local cases with symptoms since Jan. 15, citing its official data.

The Feb. 4-20 event will be followed by the Winter Paralympics from March 4-13 which will result in a large number of non-Chinese–from athletes to media personnel—arriving in Beijing for the event.

Already COVID-19 cases have risen above 100 in the so-called Olympic bubble the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday with most of those cases said not to be athletes or team support members but “other stakeholders”, which tends to mean media and Games partners.

Nine of the 106 cases were arrivals testing positive at Beijing airport.

Beijing officials have not clarified whether the recent outbreaks are the Delta or Omicron variant.

Tianjin Testing

To the communist regime, the virus is viewed as a threat to their hosting of the Games and they have gone to extremes to check its spread.

On Jan. 9, the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin began a new round of testing of its 14 million residents to contain Omicron.

Epoch Times Photo
A woman uses a loudspeaker to give advice to residents as they line up during mass testing in Tianjin, China, on Jan. 9, 2022. (Sun Fanyue/Xinhua via AP)

The city authorities ordered a half-day off for employees at companies and other institutions and required them to keep activities static and comply with its new round of mass testing. The megacity is less than a two-hour drive from Beijing.

On Jan. 15, Beijing reported its first locally transmitted Omicron case which reportedly came from Haidian, Beijing’s second-largest district. Authorities responded by sealing off 17 “risk areas” associated with the case. All residents of the neighborhood compound where the person lived were temporarily barred from leaving their homes.

Later that day, Beijing’s Municipal Health Commission confirmed another imported Omicron case.

Given that the Chinese regime is known to grossly underreport its virus numbers, the official figure likely doesn’t reflect the true total.

Omicron’s detection in Beijing comes as cities across China have ratcheted up vigilance against the virus ahead of the Games. The variant is posing a fresh challenge for the regime, whose officials have doubled down on its “zero-tolerance approach,” which was initially a nationwide effort to bring the Delta variant under control.

Over 20 million Chinese residents in at least five cities are under lockdown.

In Xi’an, harsh virus containment policies have caused locals to struggle for access to food and other necessities, and the very ill have been unable to obtain medical help. Similar lockdown measures in port cities such as Ningbo also threaten to disrupt global supply chains.

Despite the stringent control efforts, more than 14 provinces across China have reported Omicron cases as of Jan. 15, according to He Qinghua, a senior official with China’s National Health Commission’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau. The official didn’t disclose the exact infection numbers, but Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the commission, described the situation as “grim.”

Closed-Loop System

The Winter Games will operate under a “closed-loop” management system, also referred to as the “Olympic Bubble.” Athletes arriving in China will be required to be fully vaccinated or be forced to spend their first 21 days in solitary quarantine.

The closed-loop system intends to completely isolate everyone involved in the event from the rest of China, attempting to prevent any possible outbreaks. This system will include dedicated transport, housing, and training facilities.

Epoch Times Photo
Athletes take part in an ice hockey training session as health workers (top) stand by during a 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games test event, at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Nov. 11, 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

Participants will be confined to the “closed-loop” from the moment they touch down in Beijing to the time they leave. They also must present two negative tests before arrival, take tests daily and submit health reports to the authorities using a mobile app. Throughout their stay, they will compete, work, eat and sleep without making any contact with the broader Chinese population.

The closed-loop consists of a series of stadiums, conference centers, approximately 72 hotels, and its own transportation system with 4,000 vehicles dedicated to moving participants from place to place within the loop. Those in downtown Beijing are fenced off and closely guarded by police.

Instead of one giant Olympic bubble, the system is a network of interconnected mini-bubbles concentrated in three zones: downtown Beijing, where the ice competitions and opening and closing ceremonies will take place; Zhangjiakou, a city in neighboring Hebei province that will host Nordic skiing and the bulk of freestyle skiing and snowboard events; and Beijing’s suburban Yanqing district, a site for alpine skiing and sliding.

An estimated 3,000 athletes and 10,000 media personnel from around the world will be enclosed in the bubble, according to Chinese state-run media. There is also a large number of support staff for the venues, including translators, cleaning and hotel staff, drivers, and about 19,000 volunteers, although not all volunteers will be in the closed-loop.

Athletes, staff, and volunteers inside the closed-loop will also be separated from spectators, who have their own transport and entrance to the events.

The Effectiveness of Beijing’s ‘Olympic Bubble’

Applying the closed-loop system to the Winter Games is arguably one of Beijing’s most ambitious undertakings. The stringent prevention and control measures present the ultimate test to the Chinese Communist Party’s “zero-COVID strategy.”

“I think it’s impossible,” Chen Weijian, editor-in-chief of Beijing Spring, a monthly magazine of the Chinese democracy movements, told The Epoch Times.

“I am citing the CCP’s own statement: A [week] ago, the Chinese authorities reported an Omicron-positive case in [Beijing’s] Haidian District. The infected person has not traveled outside of Beijing. Thus, the authorities claimed that the virus came from a Canadian parcel,” Chen said.

“There are [thousands of] athletes from around the world, each bringing their own luggage and equipment. Using Beijing’s logic, the Omicron infections would likely explode during the Winter Games.”

Chen also questioned the authorities’ claim on the real cause of infection.

“Beijing’s postal service also said that they checked all its postal workers related to the parcel and found no infection. By logic, if the parcel recipient were infected, the postal workers exposed to the parcel would’ve also been infected,” Chen added.

A former Chinese national team swimmer and Olympic silver medalist, Huang Xiaomin, also told The Epoch Times that she doubts that Beijing will be able to contain the Omicron variant.

Epoch Times Photo
A security guard closes a gate into the Beijing Olympic Park on Jan. 4, 2022, in Beijing, host to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in one month’s time on Feb. 4. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

International Concerns

Winter Games participants worldwide are concerned about the CCP’s extreme—if not unreasonable—COVID measures.

In early January, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) CEO David Shoemaker expressed his profound concerns if the Games would go ahead as planned, citing a Reuters report.

Shoemaker told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that if the COC believes the athletes’ safety is compromised, it will not hesitate to pull the plug on sending a team to Beijing as it did in March 2020 to the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The Tokyo Games were later delayed for one year.

According to Reuters, the greatest concern currently for the COC is getting athletes into the Beijing bubble without testing positive for the CCP virus and facing three to five weeks of quarantine in China.

In December 2021, the National Hockey League (NHL) said it would not send players to the Winter Games’ men’s ice hockey tournament, citing the pandemic’s “profound disruption” to its schedule.

Chinese Olympic medalist Huang told The Epoch Times that the CCP would most likely proceed with the Winter Games at any cost, even if the pandemic were to worsen.

“The CCP has been preparing for [the Olympics] for more than seven years. It will stop at nothing to make it happen on time. The safety of the athletes or the international pressure for delaying [the Games] is among the least of its concerns,” Huang added.

In an attempt to alleviate international worries, Chinese leader Xi Jinping toured the Winter Games venues on Jan. 4 for the fifth time and endorsed its preparation, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Beijing’s Reputation At Stake

Despite the stringent lockdown measures in Xi’an, Tianjin, and other infected cities, in early January, CCP officials said it so far has no plans to lock down Beijing or to change either the Olympics schedule or virus-control measures in response to Omicron.

This announcement came to the surprise of many local authorities in Beijing as it goes against the CCP’s “zero-tolerance approach” towards the virus.

For the Chinese government, more appears at stake. The Olympics is not only an opportunity to showcase China’s athletic achievements but also to validate its authoritarian system to the world.

Suppose Beijing can pull off this massive-scale sporting event without reporting a major outbreak. It could claim that its top-down authoritarian system is better than Western democracies, which have struggled to contain outbreaks.

“The Games will be a success if it starts on time,” Xi said during his latest inspection tour at the Winter Games venues, signaling his strong determination against any delay.

Punishment If Foreign Athletes Protest

An official with China’s Olympics organizing committee has cautioned foreign athletes against speaking out during next month’s Winter Olympics, warning that any behavior that violates Chinese regulations could potentially get them ejected from the Games.

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected, and anything and any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” said Yang Shu, deputy director-general of Beijing 2022’s international relations department.

Epoch Times Photo
Activists rally in front of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, California, calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to concerns over China’s human rights record on Nov. 3, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Many forms of speech are suppressed under highly restrictive laws imposed by the CCP, making it a challenge for ordinary citizens to express themselves freely both online and offline. Dissidents, rights lawyers, citizen journalists, and petitioners who criticize the regime often face detention and prosecution under broadly-defined charges, such as “provoking trouble” and “inciting subversion.”

Yang made the remarks during a Jan. 19 virtual briefing hosted by the Chinese embassy in Washington, when asked about athletes speaking out on human rights issues during the Olympics, slated to begin on Feb. 4.

He suggested canceling the athletes’ accreditation as a possible form of punishment, citing the guidelines in the Olympic organizers’ playbook.

Some activists have been urging Olympians to refrain from criticizing China while in Beijing for the sake of their own safety.

“We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there’s really not much protection,” said Rob Koehler, the director-general of the Global Athlete group, at a Jan. 18 forum by rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The rights activists also mentioned the case of three-time tennis Olympian Peng Shuai, who went missing for weeks after accusing a powerful former communist official of sexually assaulting her. Her disappearance is “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” to athletes who speak out, Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said.

Security Risk, Potential Communication Lockdown

A data security expert has warned that people traveling to China for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, including athletes, government dignitaries, and corporate executives, are all at risk of personal data exposure and being surveilled by the Chinese regime.

The risk centers around a state-controlled smartphone app called “MY2022” that the regime in Beijing demands that international and local attendees use to come to the Games. The app’s vulnerabilities were recently exposed by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which described in its analysis that the app has a “devastating” security flaw, particularly in the amount of user information the app’s developer can collect.

Epoch Times Photo
A user holds a mobile phone showing the Winter Olympic Games 2022 official app “MY 2022” in Beijing on Jan. 20, 2022. (François-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images)

The app, which primarily serves as a tool to track users’ COVID-19 health status, also features an instant messaging function and provides information about the Games, as well as tips on local food and beverage, accommodations, and transportation. The app is available in both iOS and Android versions.

Citizen Lab, which published its findings regarding the app on Jan. 18, said that user information, including passport details, travel history, and phone numbers, could be compromised, given that the app can be “deceived into connecting to a malicious host while believing it is a trusted host.”

The laboratory also found that the app contains a blacklist for keywords, including “Tiananmen Massacre,” “Tibet Freedom,” and “Falun Gong,” as well as Chinese terms for The Epoch Times and its sister outlet NTD. The Chinese regime blocks The Epoch Times and its affiliated media because of their longstanding reporting on issues critical of the communist regime, such as human rights violations.

Human Rights Day
People holding signs urging for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in San Francisco, Calif. on Dec. 10, 2021 (Jason Blair/NTD Television)

MY2022’s developer, Beijing Financial Holdings Group Co. Ltd, as shown on the Apple App Store download page, is tied to the CCP.

Chen, the editor-in-chief of Beijing Spring, told The Epoch Times that the CCP would almost definitely monitor the mobile devices of foreign staff and athletes, preventing sensitive information or news from being sent out if any were to happen or discovered during the Games.

“For example, if a massive outbreak were to occur during the Winter Games, it would be difficult for the athletes to get the information out until the event concludes,” he said.

Chen added that Beijing would likely use the pandemic as an excuse to distance the participants, keeping the athlete-to-athlete communication very limited as a way to prevent the spread of sensitive information.

Japan’s Olympic Success Without Stringent Rules

Although not perfect, the Tokyo Games Last summer was a success recognized by the international community. Despite recording more than 400 infections in its Olympic bubble, most participants felt safe and unconstrained.

the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics
Fireworks illuminate over National Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 8, 2021. (Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo)

Japan was willing to delay its long-planned massive sporting event by a year over the health and safety concerns of staff and athletes worldwide.

In 2021, Japan adopted an uncompromising—yet humane—health protocol for all participants.

Participants were not required to be vaccinated or quarantined. Instead, they were asked to stay in Olympic-related venues as much as possible. They had many opportunities to interact with the wider Japanese population, such as picking up takeaway food at local restaurants or convenience stores.

During the event, Tokyo’s local media personnel and venue staff could commute from their home to the venues. Olympic spectators were also free to move around the city after 14 days of restricted movement.

A Sporting Event Without Freedom

Unlike Japan, China is pursuing a far more stringent health protocol, going to great lengths to eliminate the risk of an outbreak, all to meet its long-held “zero-COVID” standard.

Beijing’s virus-control measures confine all participants—domestic and abroad—inside the bubble, allowing minimal freedom within the confined zones.

To further prevent the possible infections from spreading outside the bubble, Beijing’s traffic authorities urged its residents to stay away from any collisions involving vehicles from the closed-loop bubble, saying that a special unit of ambulances would respond to such accidents.

Beijing Olympic organizers on Jan. 17 stopped selling tickets to the general public after the city reported its first case of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Tickets will only be distributed to a selected group of spectators, according to an announcement posted on the organizing committee’s website. Those spectators will need to “strictly abide by” authorities’ virus curbs to “help create an absolutely safe environment for the athletes,” the organizers said, adding that they could only clap—not cheer—when watching the games.

Beijing’s ambitious attempt to control almost every aspect of the Winter Games, including all participants, has led many to believe this to be the most unpleasant sporting event in Olympic history.

Kane Zhang contributed to this article.

Ben Liang
Jessica Mao
Jessica Mao is a writer for The Epoch Times with a focus on China-related topics. She began writing for the Chinese-language edition in 2009.