The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The closed loop eliminated covid, and joy, from the Olympics

A worker in a protective suit sprays a bus with disinfectant at a shuttle terminal. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

BEIJING — For more than two weeks, barricades separated the Winter Olympics from the place in which they were held. Athletes, officials and media members shuttled from hotels to venues, forbidden to see the host city except out of windows. Their mornings began with a throat swab, such a shared experience that the participants learned how gentle each nurse would be. Temperature checks accompanied entry to any building in which they were permitted.

Chinese officials and Beijing 2022 organizers called the system used at the Games the “closed loop.” In compliance with China’s “zero-covid-19” policies, no one outside the loop could enter, and no one inside could exit. Those who had traveled to China interacted only with others wearing laminated credentials or hazmat suits. Those who lived here saw visitors passing by in buses.

The extreme measures achieved their aim. In the final week of the Olympics, organizers recorded zero coronavirus cases inside the closed loop two consecutive days, then added one case Friday. The trickle of new cases, most of which had been filtered at the Beijing airport, ceased. As of Friday, the Games had an infection rate of 0.01 percent. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach called the closed loop in Beijing “one of the safest places on this planet, if not the safest place.”

As Bach hailed the testing numbers as “a great achievement,” Olympic and Chinese officials were less eager to reckon with the costs of their success. The elimination of the virus from the Olympics placed a psychological burden on athletes. It forced hordes of unfailingly cheerful Chinese volunteers, many of them students, to spend laborious weeks away from family. It caused financial budgets to balloon. It cast a pall of pervasive joylessness.

Most athletes shared the same sentiment about their Beijing experiences. Preparing had been the most trying part. They were required to take multiple coronavirus tests before boarding a plane, stressing about their results before worrying if one last test at the airport would trap them in an isolation facility days before the most important athletic performance of their lives.

The vast majority of athletes tested negative at the airport, then quickly felt their stress replaced by dullness. They could train in designated areas. They could eat at the same restaurants day after day. They could wait.

“With all the covid crap, it was really hard to get here,” Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris said. “Once we were here, it’s kind of like sports prison. You’re just chilling. You can’t really go do anything. You’re just chilling, which wasn’t that bad. Lots of rest, hanging out.”

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The athletes who tested positive struggled. Belgian skeleton slider Kim Meylemans tested positive when she arrived despite having no symptoms and probably not being contagious — Meylemans originally tested positive a month earlier. She moved into an isolation facility. When Meylemans recorded the requisite two negative tests, Beijing 2022 officials mistakenly sent her to another isolation facility rather than the Athletes’ Village, owing to what she called a “communication error.”

Meylemans recorded a tearful video explaining her situation and expressing concern for her ability to compete. Belgian and IOC officials intervened and moved her into the Village. Meylemans finished well outside medal contention, but she harbored no ill will toward the IOC.

“I don’t think I need an apology,” Meylemans said. “What happened, happened. They made sure I got out of there, and that’s all that matters. … We’re quite certain I was never positive here in China. It was just a lot of bad luck along the road.”

Bach acknowledged, “There were some issues with the isolation facilities in the beginning.”

China’s strict “closed-loop” system separates the Winter Games from the rest of the country with the hope of stopping the spread of coronavirus variants. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Norwegian snowboarder Mons Roisland eventually won a big air silver medal, which after his first week in China he never could have imagined. He tested positive after arriving and found a mental tax in isolation.

“I couldn’t take a lift with anyone,” Roisland said. “I’ve been so alone. It was really difficult. I had to be in my own head a lot.”

Two days before U.S. bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor won silver in monobob, she told her coach she may have to drop out of the competition. By that point she had left isolation, but the mental and emotional damage from her time there remained. After testing positive upon arrival, Meyers Taylor had to separate from her 2-year-old son, Nico, and her husband, Nic, a U.S. bobsled alternate.

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The closed loop also placed intense demands on athletes before they arrived. Speedskater Casey Dawson took 45 PCR coronavirus tests in Utah before he could fulfill China’s obligation, triggering positives with borderline levels of detection long after he stopped feeling symptoms. Dawson, 21, arrived the morning of his first event and skated while jet-lagged and exhausted.

“There’s obviously anger and a lot of emotions going through my head,” Dawson said. “I just block those off and continue going and just focused on getting here.”

Asked whom he was angry with, Dawson kept it to himself. “I’m not angry at anyone,” Dawson said. “I’m not going to name names. But just the whole situation.”

As cases from the omicron variant fade across the globe, it seems somewhere between naive and reasonable to hope for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy in Paris for the 2024 Summer Games. In the past six months, two Olympics have been held, one of them delayed by a year, both held with restrictions, the latter massively so to appease a government’s aggressive virus policy.

The only cheers heard came through muffled masks, from volunteers or teammates but not fans. The closed loop enabled athletes to compete and networks to broadcast a television event. It did not grant anyone the kind of experience they wanted.

“From the pandemic, we have learned how fragile our life is,” Bach said. “There is no difference to the Olympic movement. The pandemic has threatened our lives and has also threatened the life of the Olympic movement. It put two Games at high risk. We learned in the Olympic movement if we are united, we can be extremely resilient.”