Life in Beijing bubble described from ‘camp’ to ‘sports prison’ by Canadian Olympians


When a Big Air Shougang freestyle skier took off his goggles last week and threw them into the crowd, cleaners dressed in full hazmat gear converged on the section.

They quickly chased the ventilators out of the section to disinfect the area.

The roughly 11,000 athletes, officials and media in attendance at the Beijing Olympics have been separated from the city’s general population in a “closed-loop” effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Anywhere outside the “closed loop” is off limits.

Two years into the global pandemic, the countless miles of high fences paint a dystopian backdrop.

“It’s a bit like a sports prison,” said Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris, who won his third bronze medal in Beijing. “You don’t do anything. You just relax. Which isn’t bad, you rest a lot, you hang out.”

McMorris’ feelings were not unique.

The main media center for the Games includes a small park. It is the only significant outdoor space where journalists are allowed to walk. It takes about 500 steps to cover its outer perimeter.

People work inside the main media center while others walk outside in the snow at the Winter Olympics. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

Journalists have taken to calling it “the prison yard”. Or, more than two weeks later, simply “the yard”.

China’s zero COVID strategy meant stricter restrictions than even the Tokyo Olympics six months earlier. And rigid protocols have essentially succeeded. The number of positive cases in the “bubble” has hovered in the low single digits for the past five days, with just one case reported on Wednesday.

Athletes are required to depart within 48 hours of the end of their event, meaning there are no tours or parties. What kind of Olympic memories will they take with them?

Figure skater Keegan Messing said he missed the chance in Beijing to catch up with skaters from other countries.

“It almost feels like a little piece of humanity is being left out,” Messing said.

A worker in hazmat suits works at a hotel and restaurant, which is part of the closed-loop Accommodation Allocation Agreement (AAA) for the Winter Olympics. (Annice Lyn/Getty Images)

When two skaters hugged in the media interview area last week, they were quickly separated by security.

“It’s different. There’s no question about that, the premise of having this bubble, which is definitely tighter than it was in Tokyo, and we knew that coming in,” said Marie-Andrée Lessard, Games Director of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“It’s very different, for sure,” said aerials athlete Lewis Irving. “The fact that there are fewer people, fewer people, means [these Games] less spirited.”

Lessard, who played beach volleyball for Canada at the 2012 London Olympics, oversaw everything from setting up the Canadian wing of the Athletes’ Village to transporting equipment to Beijing.

The village also has a park that’s “enough space to feel like you can take a breath of fresh air,” Lessard said.

The Canadian team also has its own gymnasium in the village.

Positive aspects of the restrictive environment

There have been some positive changes since Tokyo. Because of Beijing’s reliance on the closed-loop system, athletes are allowed to participate in other sports. Canadian figure skaters, for example, were at the big snowboard event on Tuesday to see Max Parrot win bronze.

“I want to cheer on Canada so much,” said speed skater Isabelle Weidemann, who won gold in the team pursuit on Tuesday, her third medal of the Games. “We’re going to the women’s (hockey) gold medal game, it’s going to be epic.”

The University of Calgary student said she otherwise took care of her school work.

The Canadian team has also reintroduced athlete lounges in the Canadian wing of the athletes’ village, with several televisions, Lessard said. There was no athlete lounge in Tokyo.

“That’s on top of being able to connect with each other, which is a huge difference we’ve seen coming out of Tokyo, [where the separation] created a certain lack of sense of belonging to a larger Team Canada,” said Lessard.

“And we keep that [lounge] with all our might. There were a few break-in attempts,” she added with a laugh. “In Tokyo, people were stealing our [500-pound fibreglass mascot] moose, taking him through the village. That was the big attraction.”

Skiers wait in the athletes’ lounge near the top of the course during a delay in the start of the men’s downhill due to high winds. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

Freestyle skier Max Moffatt, who finished ninth in slopestyle on Wednesday, compared the Games to “a camp” rather than a prison.

“You just hang out and do your thing every day and we ski a lot, so it hasn’t been too bad at all,” he said.

He said the skiers had fun playing mini golf in their rooms, following a soccer ball and a spike ball.

“There are video games that we’ve played. It’s just fun times with your friends,” he said.

Nothing better than being at home

Beyond the lack of freedom, what is most lacking in Beijing, as in Tokyo, is family and friends. Both Games have banned international travellers. The videos of loved ones gathered to clap at home touched the heart.

Moguls star Mikael Kingsbury wrote the names of his family members on his helmet before skiing for the silver.

“I wanted to compete and know they were going to be with me,” Kingsbury said. “I can’t wait to get home and share my medal with them.”

Workers clean in front of a bottom near the press center inside the ‘bubble’ in Beijing. (Francois-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images)

Canada has brought in psychologists Karen MacNeill and Susan Cockle to help deal with the mental health impacts of the Olympics amid a pandemic.

“I was just chatting with Susan and a lot of people reached out, whether it was the mission team, whether it was [national sport organizations] staff or athletes reached out just to chat and connect. I think it’s something that will definitely stick,” Lessard said.

In pre-pandemic times, family and friends attending the Games could also gather at Canada House after the competitions, to share a celebratory beer and poutine, watch the competition on huge televisions and celebrate the medalists. from Canada.

The pandemic meant there was no Canada House in Tokyo or Beijing.

While the pandemic meant there was no mixing with popular Beijing pop, it also meant there was no experience in the host city. A free day at the Beijing Summer Games in 2008 could have meant a trip to the silk market, the Temple of Heaven or seeing the Great Wall.

The only sights seen from the city at these Games are through a bus window.

A bus in the closed loop system. (Annice Lyn/Getty Images)

Lessard said Canadian athletes took the Beijing Village Games transit to the Olympic mountain groups in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou for a glimpse of the Great Wall and a change of scenery.

“Privilege to be here in the first place”

One advantage is that Canadian athletes have been living with strict health and safety protocols for two years.

“We had experience in [Calgary curling] bubble last year and that really helped,” said Canadian women’s curling vice-captain Kaitlyn Lawes. “It gave us a lot of perspective on what it’s like to be alone and not have that extra contact with our friends and family.

Bobsledder Cam Stones said their bubble was not much different from their existence on the World Cup circuit amid the pandemic. Eleven members of the Canadian team had to self-isolate in dormitories for 10 days in Latvia after contracting COVID in late December.

“It’s a privilege to be here in the first place,” Stones said. “We have a place in Germany that we literally call ‘sports prison’. It’s a big step up from that. It’s in East Germany and I think it was built during the Cold War. I don’t think they’ve changed much since. When you’re used to that stuff, anything else is a bonus.”

Fellow bobsledder Chris Spring said they’ve kept the beer on ice so far.

“We will eliminate them at the end of the four-way race,” he said. “All the other alpine athletes are in our village. We gather in the Canada lounge and cheer on the other athletes.”

After two pandemic Olympics, the anticipation for the Paris 2024 Summer Games, hopefully without pandemic restrictions, is palpable.

Beijing’s restrictions, including the 48-hour starting rule, “take away a bit of a bigger Olympic adventure,” Lessard conceded.

But it made sense in China from a health and safety perspective – and perhaps even in creating a better performance environment for athletes.

“[Because] there are only competing athletes who are still on the field,” she said. “It felt like a natural fit in a COVID environment, but maybe it’s also something to watch to the future.”


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