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Forget Faster and Stronger. The Winter Olympics Are Sadder, Quieter, Scarier.

Forget Faster and Stronger. The Winter Olympics Are Sadder, Quieter, Scarier.

Isolation rooms, fears of positive Covid-19 tests and the absence of cheering crowds are squeezing all the joy from the Beijing Games

By Ben Cohen and Joshua Robinson, WSJ


Feb. 11, 2022 9:27 am ET

BEIJING—On the day Team USA flag bearer Elana Meyers Taylor was supposed to march her country into the Olympic Stadium, she was in a Chinese isolation hotel. She had tested positive for Covid-19 and watched the Opening Ceremony on TV in a room she wasn’t allowed to leave.

Ms. Meyers Taylor was one of the lucky ones. She has since recovered and is scheduled to compete as one of the medal favorites in two bobsled events.

In the gloom of the Beijing Winter Olympics, luck is a relative term. The Games are supposed to be an ebullient, global sporting bonanza, but they have never felt so downbeat. Rather than “Faster, Higher, Stronger—Together,” the Olympic motto, the Beijing Games so far have been sadder and quieter.

Olympians compete in nearly empty arenas without friends or family. Some wear N95 masks, in practice and even in competition, to limit the risk of infection. The rest live with the daily fear of testing positive, being sent to isolation and watching years of training slip away.

Natalia Maliszewska, a short-track speedskater from Poland, was awoken at 3 a.m. one night this week, before she was set to compete, and transported to isolation before learning that authorities had made a mistake. It later turned out that she had tested positive and was returned to isolation.

“To me, this is a big joke,” Ms. Maliszewska said. “I hope whoever is managing this has a lot of fun. My heart and my mind can’t take this anymore.”

The usual stresses, strains and tolls of competing at the Games have been amplified by a pandemic that has shrunk the event to fit into a suffocating bubble.

American figure skater Vincent Zhou felt a sense of desperation from inside his isolation hotel room this week after he tested positive for Covid-19. With his chance to compete now over—he skated in the team event but missed his individual event—he was awaiting the two negative PCR tests that would return his freedom.

“I’ve taken all the precautions I can,” he said in a tearful Instagram video. “I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.”

There have been troubles rumbling beneath every Olympics for the past decade. Sochi had terrorism fears. Rio had the Zika virus. Pyeongchang had nuclear posturing. Tokyo also had Covid-19. Yet the combination of disease control and geopolitical tension has cast one of the longest shadows over the Beijing Games.

Two years after the first lockdown in Wuhan signaled the beginning of a global pandemic, more than 70,000 people moved into what China’s Olympics organizers call a “closed loop.” Athletes, coaches, media and volunteers are tested daily by staff covered head-to-toe in hazmat suits and sequestered from the rest of a nation adhering to a strict zero-Covid policy.

Olympians peer out the windows of buses at Beijing residents going about their daily lives. Reporters are prohibited from crossing the street from the hockey rink to the curling site because the road in between isn’t within the closed loop. After the Omicron variant triggered a harder clampdown, no fans were permitted to buy tickets, giving the whole Olympics enterprise the feel of a biosecure soundstage.

To the hosts, the taming of the virus counts as a showcase of Chinese muscle, set against the backdrop of a pandemic as well as international concerns over China’s treatment of ethnic minority Muslims, alleged cyberspying and limits on freedom of expression, all of which China has denied.

Sour relations between the U.S. and China resulted in an American diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games. Team USA’s athletes were advised to pack disposable phones instead of personal phones in case of hacking. Human-rights advocates warned Olympians against protesting while on Chinese soil.

China is enforcing a strict set of rules at the Winter Olympics to stop the spread of Covid-19. From a "closed-loop” system to a ban on shouting, WSJ explains how some of these restrictions will work, and why an outbreak could still derail competitions. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Chinese leader Xi Jinping was joined at the Games by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They issued a joint statement criticizing the U.S. as Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine.

“I appeal to all political authorities across the world,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said during the Opening Ceremony. “Give peace a chance.”

The primary concern for local authorities is the integrity of the bubble separating the Olympics from the rest of Beijing. Nearly 500,000 tests since the Opening Ceremony identified 37 cases but found no signs of the coronavirus spreading among the masked, almost entirely vaccinated residents of the closed loop.

‘I cry every day’

Athletes whose dreams were shattered by catching the virus days before their scheduled flights thought they were the most miserable Olympians. There turned out to be a worse scenario: testing negative at home and then testing positive in China.

In the first week of the Beijing Games, dozens of athletes and coaches had their Olympic experience transform into a lonely stay at an isolation hotel. As of Friday, 26 athletes were in isolation, according to the IOC, and another 66 had been discharged.

While the number of positive Covid tests a day remains minuscule, the measures haven’t prevented the coronavirus from ripping through entire squads and upending events, including the women’s hockey tournament this week.

The Russian Olympic Committee team squared off against Canada. Both teams wore masks for two periods, but the Russians removed theirs in the third. At least one of the Russians later tested positive.

Entire events are being reshaped by who may or may not be free to compete. The Nordic combined event is missing both the reigning Olympic champion and the athlete ranked No. 1 in the world. Instead of ski jumping off the side of mountains and gliding through cross-country courses, they were kept in their living quarters, stuck with unreliable Wi-Fi connections, bland food and without training equipment.

Russian biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova posted photos from isolation that showed a meal made up of a small portion of pasta, overcooked meat and a few potatoes. “My stomach hurts, I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes,” she wrote on Instagram. “I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired.”

The IOC upgraded the quality of the isolation experience in response to complaints from the trapped Olympians, but only after encountering another problem: When it scheduled a call to discuss the conditions with the Athletes’ Commission, the chair of the committee was in isolation herself.

Strange journey

To secure the negative Covid-19 results he needed to enter Beijing, American speedskater Casey Dawson said he took 45 PCR tests over the past three weeks. He didn’t get his first negative result until Feb. 4, the day of the Opening Ceremony. The following day, he traveled from Salt Lake City to Atlanta to Paris to Beijing, where he touched down on the morning of Feb. 8.

Mr. Dawson was thrilled he made it. Then he learned his bags hadn’t. He luckily had packed a racing suit in his carry-on and borrowed an extra set of blades from a Latvian competitor.

Perhaps no competitors at the Games had a stranger journey through China’s protocols than the Australian mixed doubles curling team of Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt. They began their Olympics testing negative for the coronavirus but displayed acute symptoms of terrible curling form.

They lost their first seven matches in round robin play before their Games got worse: Ms. Gill received the dreaded call.

She gathered her things and headed for isolation, expecting to be removed from the Olympic Village. The Australian Olympic Committee instead delivered good news. The group of local and international doctors, the “Medical Expert Panel,” reviewed her case and decided that Ms. Gill was free to compete because she wasn’t contagious. Her match against reigning silver medalist Switzerland was in 15 minutes.

Ms. Gill rifled through her luggage, pulled out her uniform and rushed to the curling venue where she and Mr. Hewitt put together their first victory of the Games. “It has literally been the craziest, craziest 24 hours,” she said. “My bags are still packed.”

The Beijing Games has had its share of non-pandemic controversies, which seem to follow every Olympics. Norwegian and German ski jumpers were furious about their suit disqualifications. China and South Korea bickered over controversial replays in short-track speedskating.

The medal ceremony awarding the Russian Olympic Committee the gold medal in team figure skating was delayed this week because its teenage superstar tested positive for a banned substance before the Olympics. Russia, which remains officially banned for its state-sponsored doping program during the Winter Games it hosted, has said it would fight to save the medal.

As in all Games, the victories have been thrilling, including the performances of U.S. gold medalists Lindsey Jacobellis, Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim. But under the pall of Covid-19, the defeats seem more agonizing.

Chloe Kim, of the U.S. team, after her women's snowboard halfpipe final in Beijing.


Mikaela Shiffrin hoped to have two gold medals after her first two events. On Wednesday, she finished the giant slalom in tears after crashing for the second time in two days. The sight of a despondent Ms. Shiffrin brought back memories of last summer’s first pandemic Olympics in Tokyo, where superstar gymnast Simone Biles found herself unable to perform her midair acrobatics.

Ms. Biles tweeted three hearts Wednesday in support of Ms. Shiffrin.

“It feels like there’s a lot to be disappointed about right now. But you know what? The throat-swab test, they make you choke a little bit, but they’re not that bad,” said Ms. Shiffrin, a gold medalist in 2014 and 2018, displaying a perspective that could come only at Olympics staged in a pandemic.

American Mikaela Shiffrin sitting alone after crashing out of the Alpine skiing women's slalom in Beijing.


One unofficial Olympic event in Beijing was packing, unpacking and repacking, as Ms. Meyers Taylor learned after having to move living quarters. After a week in isolation, the U.S. flag-bearer finally got the test results she and her family had waited for.

“ALL NEGATIVE!” she tweeted Wednesday.

Despite the lost training hours and the days of mind-numbing boredom, Ms. Meyers Taylor was released in time for her to chase a fourth Olympic bobsled medal. Her first chance is after the Super Bowl on Sunday.

There will still be a week until the Closing Ceremony.

—Rachel Bachman contributed to this article.

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