The Beijing Winter Olympics is being hosted inside a veritable fortress – known informally as the “bubble” – that takes weeks of careful planning to successfully penetrate.
Designed to prevent the spread of Covid, the bubble is the most ambitious quarantine attempted anywhere since the start of the pandemic.
The journey inside the bubble starts with a copy of the “Playbook,” an 83-page rule book described by Olympic officials as a “way of life.”
The guide instructs participants to upload their daily temperature readings into an app 14 days before the Games and to isolate during that time to avoid infection. As Omicron cases are surging in Tokyo, where I live, I didn’t take any chances.
By the time I departed for Beijing, I was fully vaccinated, had tested negative for Covid twice, and had stocked my suitcase with face masks and snacks to eat if I failed a test and was forced to isolate alone for the entire Winter Games.
Maintaining social distance was easy on my almost empty ANA Airlines “special flight” from Tokyo, chartered to transport people to the Games.
As we approached Beijing, smog outside the window tinted the view a dusty brown.
When we landed, workers in hazmat suits were waiting on the runway to spray our luggage with disinfectant the moment it was unloaded from the plane.
Walking from the plane into the terminal was like entering a medical facility, rather than an Olympic host city.
Workers in white, full body protective gear, goggles, and masks directed passengers through the airport.
Beijing Capital International Airport, once among the busiest in Asia, looked largely deserted.
Olympic posters and “Welcome to Beijing” signs lined empty hallways, where workers were waiting to take my temperature.
We were then led straight to a makeshift testing site, consisting of dozens of cubicles.
After getting tested for Covid – with a painful nasal and throat swab – I passed through immigration and customs.
The entire process was relatively smooth, if surreal, and requires massive organization and manpower.
The airport staff and volunteers are not allowed to go home at the end of their shifts to prevent potential spread of the virus into the city.
That means they’ll be away from their families during Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in China, which falls on Tuesday.
As I stopped to collect my bags, a group of masked workers in hazmat suits asked to take a selfie with me.
I got on a bus, along with about 10 other arrivals. The front of the coach was sealed off behind a transparent wall – separating us from the driver. We also had our own dedicated lane, allowing the bus to overtake other vehicles stuck in Beijing’s notoriously bad traffic.
I had officially entered what Olympic organizers are calling the “closed loop” – a system of multiple bubbles – including venues, conference centers, and hotels – connected by dedicated transport.
The loop stretches more than 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Beijing to Yanqing district, the site of the alpine skiing and sliding events, and more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) beyond that to Zhangjiakou, where Nordic skiing and other events will be held.
Those locations are connected to Beijing by high-speed rail, with dedicated sections for Olympic participants. It’s an ambitious system designed to keep the Olympics completely separate from the rest of the mostly Covid-free Chinese population.
The “closed loop” is so strict that Beijing police have told residents not to help any Olympic vehicles that may be involved in a crash to avoiding breaching the bubble. Authorities say there are special medics to respond to any such accidents.
China largely sealed its borders in March 2020, and it’s still difficult to get into the country due to a lack of flights and limited approval for visas. This is the first time I’ve returned since moving from Beijing to Japan 18 months ago – I’m allowed in to cover the Games with media credentials.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve been through five quarantines in Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Each government has a different approach to tackling Covid, making traveling through Asia exhausting and nerve-wracking.
But this trip required the most meticulous planning and attention to detail to make sure every rule was followed.
The bus took us straight to a designated Olympic hotel surrounded by large temporary walls inside the loop.
As I waited in my room for the results of the airport Covid test, waves of anxiety hit me. What if my test came back positive? Or what if it came back negative, but I was somehow infected during travel and I’d test positive in a few days?
After all the painstaking preparations, I just wanted to be able to do my job and not spend my assignment in isolation.
But the scenarios I was mulling in my head pale in comparison to the angst Olympic athletes experienced in the lead up to this Games. Several athletes told me they were self-isolating for a month before the Games, paranoid that a positive test could derail the moment they’ve worked their entire careers for.
Six hours later, my test results came back: negative. I’ve never been so relieved.
But I’ll have to stay on guard throughout the Games. Every day, everyone in the bubble is tested and has to upload their temperature to a special app. Throughout my stay, I’m strictly confined to the hotel and Olympic venues.
The Beijing My2022 app is similar to the health app I used during the Tokyo Olympics, but cybersecurity researchers have warned the Beijing version contains security flaws that leave users exposed to data breaches. Chinese authorities have dismissed those concerns.
If someone inside the loop tests positive, they’ll be confined to a room in an isolation facility until they return two consecutive negative tests, at least 24 hours apart. Once cleared, they are allowed to return to their role or event, though with extra precautions including the need to isolate and take two Covid tests a day.
Those who do not test negative risk becoming temporarily stuck in isolation. However, organizers have promised that a separate policy enabling those cases to return home at the earliest possible time is being worked out.
All local staff and volunteers at the Winter Olympics have to follow the same Covid rules as international guests. And when the Games are over, they must quarantine for 21 days before returning home.
Across China, entire communities have been forced into lockdown over a single Covid case. Any failure to contain cases at the closed loop could undermine the country’s zero-Covid strategy and put the entire nation’s health and reputation at risk.
So during the nearly three weeks of the Winter Olympics, Beijing isn’t taking any risks.