Beijing bubble life described from 'camp' to 'sports prison' by Canadian Olympians

The some-11,000 athletes, officials and media 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 out of bounds.

Unique atmosphere lacks many amenities of usual Olympic Games

Security guards stand inside a fenced area next to the Main Media Centre during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Foreign and local athletes, officials, journalists, and support workers are required to stay in a bubble to prevent the spread of coronavirus as China continues to maintain its zero COIVD policy. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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

They hastily shooed away the fans in the section to disinfect the area.

The some-11,000 athletes, officials and media 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 out of bounds.

Two years into the global pandemic, the countless kilometres of tall fencing paint a dystopian backdrop.

"It's kinda like sports prison," said Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris, who captured his third bronze medal in Beijing. "You don't do anything. You're just chilling. Which isn't that bad, you get lots of rest, hanging out."

McMorris's sentiments weren't unique.

The Games' main media centre features a small park. It's the only significant outdoor space where journalists are permitted to walk. It takes about 500 steps to walk its outer perimeter.

People work inside the Main Media Centre while others walk outside in the snow at the Winter Olympics. (Ashley Landis/The Associated Press)

Reporters have taken to calling it "the prison yard." Or, more than two weeks in, simply "the yard."

China's zero-COVID strategy meant tighter restrictions than even the Tokyo Olympics six months earlier. And the rigid protocols have essentially been successful. The number of positive cases in the "bubble" has hovered in the single digits for the past five days, with only one case reported on Wednesday.

Athletes are required to depart within 48 hours of their event ending, meaning no sightseeing or partying. 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 small piece of humanity is being left out," Messing said.

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

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

"It's different. There's no doubt about it, the premise of having this bubble, which is certainly tighter than it was in Tokyo, and we knew that coming in," said Marie-Andree Lessard, the Canadian Olympic Committee's Director of Games.

"It is quite different for sure," said aerials athlete Lewis Irving. "The fact that there are less people, smaller crowds, means [these Games] have less gusto."

Lessard, who played beach volleyball for Canada at the 2012 London Olympics, oversaw everything from setup of Canada's wing of the athletes village to the transport of equipment to Beijing.

The village also has a park that is "enough space to feel like you can take a solid breath of fresh air," Lessard said.

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

Positive aspects of restrictive environment

There have been a few positive changes from Tokyo. Because of Beijing's confidence in the closed-loop system, athletes are permitted to attend other sports. Canadian figure skaters, for example, were at snowboarding's big air event Tuesday to see Max Parrot win bronze.

"I want to cheer for Canada so badly," said speed skater Isabelle Weidemann, who captured gold in the team pursuit on Tuesday, her third medal of the Games. "We're going to go to the women's gold-medal (hockey) game, it's going to be epic."

The University of Calgary student said she'd otherwise kept herself busy with schoolwork.

The Canadian team also reintroduced athlete lounges in Canada's wing of the athletes village, with several TVs, Lessard said. There was no athlete lounge in Tokyo.

"That's added to the ability to connect amongst each other, which is a huge difference we saw coming out of Tokyo, [where the separation] created a bit of a lack of feeling a part of greater Team Canada," Lessard said.

"And we guard this [lounge] with all of our might. There have been a couple of attempts to break into it," she added laughing. "In Tokyo, people were stealing our [500-pound fibreglass mascot] moose, taking it across 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/The Associated Press)

Freestyle skier Max Moffatt, who was ninth in slopestyle on Wednesday, likened the Games to "a camp," rather than prison.

"You're just hanging out and doing your thing each day and we're skiing a lot so it's been not too bad at all," he said.

He said the skiers have entertained themselves playing minigolf in their rooms, keep-up with a soccer ball, and spike ball.

"There's some video games we've been playing. It's just kind of fun times hanging out with your friends," he said.

No place like home

Beyond the lack of freedom, the biggest thing missing in Beijing, as in Tokyo, is family and friends. Both Games banned international travellers. The videos of loved ones gathered cheering back home have tugged on the heartstrings.

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

"I wanted to compete and know they were going to be with me," Kingsbury said. "I can't wait to go home and share my medal with them."

Workers clean in front of a backdrop of near the press centre inside the "bubble" in Beijing. (François-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images)

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

"I was just chatting with Susan and a lot of people have reached out, whether it's mission team, whether it's [national sport organizations] staff or athletes have reached out just to chat and connect. I think it's something that will certainly stay," Lessard said.

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

The pandemic meant no Canada House in Tokyo or Beijing.

While the pandemic has meant no mixing with Beijing's gen pop, it's also meant no experiencing the host city. An off-day at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games might have meant a trip to the silk market, the Temple of Heaven or to see the Great Wall.

The only sights seen of 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 have been taking Games transit from the Beijing city village up to the Olympic mountain clusters in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou for a glimpse of the Great Wall and a change of scenery.

'Privilege to be here in the first place'

An upside is that Canadian athletes having been living with strict health and safety protocols for two years.

"We did have experience in the [Calgary curling] bubble last year and that really helped," said Canadian women's curling team vice-skip Kaitlyn Lawes. "It gave us a lot of perspective on what it's like being alone and not having that extra contact with our friends and family."

Bobsledder Cam Stones said their bubble isn't much different from their existence on the World Cup circuit amid the pandemic. Eleven members of the Canadian team had to isolate in dorm-size rooms 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 we literally call the 'sport prison.' This is 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 change much since then. When you're used to that kind of stuff, anything else is a bonus."

Fellow bobsledder Chris Spring said they've kept the beer on ice thus far.

"We'll crack them out at the end of the four-man race," he said. "All the other alpine athletes are in our village. We rally together in the Canada lounge and cheer on other athletes."

After two pandemic Olympics, the anticipation for the Paris 2024 Summer Games, hopefully free of pandemic restrictions, is palpable.

The Beijing restrictions, including the 48-hour departure rule, do "take away a little bit of a greater 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's only competing athletes that are still on the ground," she said. "It has felt like a natural choice in a COVID environment, but it also maybe something to look at the future."

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