Weeks-long isolation, repeat stints in quarantine and sub-par meals – these are conditions that some Olympic athletes snared in Beijing’s stringent system for controlling Covid-19 say they are contending with, and some are pushing back.
Finnish ice hockey head coach Jukka Jalonen on Sunday accused China of “not respecting human rights” for keeping his star player Marko Anttila in isolation for more than two weeks, leaving the athlete, who tested positive for the virus, out of commission into the first weekend of the Beijing Winter Games, which kicked off on Friday.
“We know that he’s fully healthy and ready to go, and that’s why we think that China, for some reason, won’t respect his human rights, and that’s not a great situation,” Jalonen told reporters Sunday, adding that according to his team doctor, Anttila was no longer infectious after first testing positive 18 days earlier.
Beijing has pushed back on the characterization, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday stressing controls put in place by the organizing committee for the Beijing Games were meant “to reduce the risk of infection as much as possible, and ensure the safe and smooth running of the Games as scheduled,” while safeguarding the health of all those involved and in the host city.
The hockey star is one of 159 athletes or team officials who have tested positive for Covid-19 in Beijing as of Tuesday morning local time. Overall, some 393 Olympics-related personnel and other stakeholders have received that result, picked up in arrival screenings and daily tests – a key pillar of Beijing’s Olympic’s bubble.
The bubble completely cordons off the more than 10,000 athletes, media, and other participants joining from around the world in a “closed-loop” system, where they live, eat, work and travel between Olympic venues some 111 miles (180 kilometers) apart, all without coming into contact with people or areas in the capital city outside.
The ambitious scheme, run by thousands of Chinese volunteers and staff, is meant to minimize the spread of Covid-19 inside the Games and prevent it from spilling into the capital city. Its rigorous testing regimes and isolation requirements for positive cases are also meant to ensure any infections that do enter the bubble are picked up quickly, before they can cause an outbreak and disrupt the Games.
Pulling off the Games without a major outbreak in the midst of a critical phase in the pandemic is also a high-stakes matter for China. The government has touted as a political win its ability to keep Covid-19 largely under control with its ‘zero-Covid’ strategy throughout much of the pandemic, even as the virus raged overseas.
But for athletes coming from parts of the world that have begun to shift their approaches to “live with the virus” after large portions of their populations received vaccines, the rules can seem jarring.
And for some, the virus and its controls have meant giving up Olympic dreams.
Polish short track speed skater Natalia Maliszewska missed her first competitive event due to being placed back in isolation within hours of her initial release.
In a social media post Sunday, Maliszewska said she was released from isolation late Friday after returning two consecutive negative tests but ended up back in isolation Saturday morning, just hours ahead of her qualifying race, due to a follow up test which returned a positive result.
“I can’t understand this anymore. I no longer believe in any tests, any Olympics. To me this is a big joke, I hope whoever is managing this has a lot of fun. My heart and my mind can’t take this anymore,” Maliszewska tweeted.
According to the Beijing 2022 organizers, athletes who test positive are required to isolate at a designated facility and can be discharged once they return two consecutive negative PCR test results, with at least 24 hours between samples.
The International Olympic Committee on Monday responded to complaints about isolation rules, with IOC sports director Kit McConnell telling reporters at a briefing Monday, “athletes in isolation remain an absolute focus” for the governing body.
“In the case of Natalia Maliszewska, the Polish short track skater…of course our thoughts are with her and anyone who is in that situation of missing an event,” McConnell said.
In a press briefing over the weekend, IOC and Beijing organizing committee officials stressed they were working to fix problems as they cropped up and to improve the overall system.
“I’m sure with our joint efforts we can effectively address these problems so that we can have a safe environment and platform for the athletes to compete,” Zhao Weidong, a spokesperson for the Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee said.
The official reactions come as athletes have taken to social media to speak out about conditions in the facilities.
The Russian Olympic Committee’s biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova, who tested positive twice following her arrival in Beijing last week, shared her experiences inside one of the capital’s quarantine hotels via Instagram on Sunday.
“This is what they’ve been feeding me for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last five days,” Vasnetsova said in a caption alongside a photograph of a Styrofoam tray containing meat, pasta, and potatoes.
“They don’t give us any other options for food. My bones are sticking out. I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes. I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired,” the Instagram post continued.
China has defended its measures, which have so far seen success in precluding on-going spread of the virus inside the Olympic bubble.
Zhao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, on Monday said China has implemented “necessary” controls and was committed to providing “meticulous and considerate services and convenience to athletes from all countries”.
The measures had been praised by the World Health Organization, Zhao said.
The challenges underline the difficulties of running such an event in the midst of the on-going global health crisis – a feat that became all the more complex for Beijing, as compared to the Tokyo Summer Games in 2021, due to the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
For the athletes, however, the toll of participating in the Olympics during a pandemic is clear.
In a video posted to Instagram on Monday evening in Beijing, American figure skater Vincent Zhou said he had tested positive for Covid-19.
“I have taken all the precautions I can, I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times,” he said.
“The enormity of the situation, the pain of it all is pretty insane…but I do recognize that this absolutely does not define me as an athlete, as a person.”