A month away from hosting the Winter Olympics, Beijing has sealed off its games “bubble” for what is expected to be the world’s strictest mass sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China, where the coronavirus was first detected towards the end of 2019, has pursued a zero-tolerance strategy on COVID-19. It is now taking the same approach to limit the pandemic’s potential effect on the February 4-20 Winter Olympics and subsequent Paralympics.
Starting on Tuesday, thousands of games-related staff, volunteers, cleaners, cooks and coach drivers will be cocooned for weeks in the so-called “closed loop” with no direct physical access to the outside world. Most major venues are outside of the capital.
The isolation approach contrasts with the COVID-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics – held between July 23 and August 8, 2021 – which allowed some movement in and out for volunteers and other personnel.
Journalists from across the world and roughly 3,000 athletes are expected to start arriving in the city in the weeks ahead and will remain in the bubble from the moment they land until they leave the country.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine when they touch down. Inside, everyone will be tested daily and must wear face masks at all times.
The system includes dedicated transport between venues, with even “closed-loop” high-speed rail systems operating in parallel to those open to the public. It is set to be operating well into late March and possibly early April.
Fans will not be part of the “closed loop” and organisers will have to ensure that they do not mingle with athletes and others inside the bubble.
Reporting from Zhangjiakou, on the outskirts of Beijing, Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said that while resorts around the capital had their busiest season this winter because of the Olympics, “this entire area will be forced to close in the weeks leading up the games to control the spread of the coronavirus”.
Authorities are anxious to prevent any outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant from spreading across the country, so people who live inside China must also quarantine upon leaving the bubble to return home.
Still, many were looking forward to the games.
“Of course I am very excited and proud because the Winter Olympics will be held in my motherland,” a woman in Zhangjiakou told Al Jazeera. “It makes me very happy, these sports have become very popular in China in recent years.”
Yu said the Chinese government had poured billions of dollars into preparing to host the Games “including investing in Italian snow-making equipment to help build up its fledgling winter sports industry”.
In a recent interview, Zhao Weidong, head of the Olympic organising committee’s media department, said Beijing was “fully prepared”.
“Hotels, transportation, accommodation, as well as our science and technology-led Winter Olympics projects are all ready,” Zhao told AFP news agency on Friday.
Yet, the pandemic has not been the only challenge organisers face.
Some Western governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, announced diplomatic boycotts in protest against the treatment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Chinese embassy in Washington described the boycott as “political manipulation”.
Analysts say additional boycotts by European Union or Asian countries would be very embarrassing for China.
“No teams are going to boycott the Games themselves,” Steve Tsang, from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, told Al Jazeera. “But if the English-speaking democracies are being followed by other major countries, then the effect will be much bigger.”