More than 1 million people apply to enter Beijing's Covid-free Olympic bubble

Volunteers for the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games learn sign language in Zhangjiakou, Hebei, China, on May 26.

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Hong Kong (CNN)Enthusiasm for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is building in China, with people clamoring for spots as volunteer workers -- even as restrictions tighten amid an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

Since applications opened nearly two years ago, more than 1 million people have applied to work unpaid at the Beijing Games, which will be held in February, state-run tabloid Global Times reported on Monday. Of that massive pool, nearly 20,000 volunteers were selected -- mostly college students from Beijing and the surrounding Hebei province.
The flood of applicants reflects the excitement sweeping China, as Beijing prepares to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It's a major point of national pride, evident in grandiose official rhetoric and frequent state media coverage in the lead-up to the Games.
    Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, similar hordes of eager citizens signed up to volunteer -- with state media reporting more than 1.2 million applications.
      But the upcoming Winter Games are taking place in a drastically different environment, with China one of the world's few remaining "zero-Covid" holdouts.
      Even as other countries in the region and around the world begin to open up and "live with Covid," Chinese officials show no signs of backing down from stringent measures and border closures in the pursuit of a virus-free country.
      In recent weeks, a resurgence of the virus has seen cases reported in more than a third of China's provinces and regions, prompting local governments to introduce punishing travel restrictions and place millions of people under snap lockdowns.
        In some ways, the situation echoes the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, which were held earlier this year against the backdrop of a Covid crisis in the host country. As athletes gathered in the Japanese capital from July to August, daily new cases spiked and Tokyo was placed under a state of emergency.
        The Japanese government's determination to hold the Games despite the Covid risk was controversial, and public support plummeted. Though 80,000 people initially signed up to volunteer at the Games, at least 10,000 had quit by mid-June, mostly over Covid concerns. Many were still waiting to get vaccinated, and said they received little protection against Covid beyond cloth masks and hand sanitizer.
        There appears to be none of that reluctance in China -- reflecting a confidence in the country's Covid prevention measures, which are broadly popular among the public.
        A volunteer holds up a sign during a test event for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on October 21 in Beijing, China.
        Unlike the vaccination delay before the Tokyo Olym