In between hours of ice hockey practice and meals taken between plastic dividers, Samantha Kolowratová finds herself wandering the aisles of the sterile white athletes’ “mall.”
Some hallways are lined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, from where the glaring light of a KFC shines through. Still further there’s a salon where athletes can get free hairstyling, facials, and manicures. Here, the table dividers are gold-rimmed, and the white walls are painted with flourishes of gold and blue. A gift shop hosts shelves filled with souvenirs sitting under stark fluorescent lights.
Everything is within arm’s reach for the athletes, but it has to be. Kolowratová, a Czech ice hockey player, and some 2,900 athletes competing at the Beijing Olympics, set to begin on Friday evening, can’t leave their village. Should they try, they’d be stopped by security personnel standing guard at closed gates.
“We’re in this weird bubble that’s not like real Beijing—I guess the most I get to experience outside of the village is driving to the rink and I get to look at all the people on their bikes and the little scooters going by,” she told VICE World News. “So it’s kind of a bummer in the sense that you don’t get to really experience the culture, especially as it was just Chinese New Year here.”
To host the Winter Games, while also adhering to China’s strict “zero-COVID” strategy that has kept infections low during the pandemic, Beijing Olympics organizers have created a “closed loop” bubble. Those outside can’t enter. Those inside can’t leave—though athletes catch glimpses of the country from bus windows. Chinese staff working the Games wear white hazmat suits that make it difficult to see the person inside, lending an atmosphere that Kolowratová likened to Korean TV show Squid Game.
These restrictive conditions have inevitably taken some of the glamor out of competing on the world stage, while political controversy and boycotts also loom over this year’s Games. Yet after about two years of cancelled competitions and virus outbreaks among teammates, Olympians speaking to VICE World News expressed gratitude just to have the chance to compete at the world’s biggest sporting event.
Oskar Eloffson, a Swedish freestyle skier for the mogul event—in which competitors career down a bumpy slope at speed—said ideally he’d love to spend more time with athletes from other countries. The 23-year-old is making his Olympic debut in Beijing, and had a rough idea of what COVID-19 restrictions would be like from hearing stories from athletes who had competed at the Tokyo Games last year.
The routine of eating, training, and sleeping wasn’t much different from back home, Eloffson said. But he is feeling the intensity of needing to focus on competing and staying COVID-19 free.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it—it adds this extra layer of intensity for just being at the Olympics,” Eloffson told VICE World News of the COVID-19 restrictions Beijing has in place.
With little else to do, Eloffson appreciates the games offered by organizers to keep them entertained, like pool, table tennis, and darts. He finds comfort in competing and spending time with his teammates to destress.
“The most fun thing is the table tennis room, I would say. The Swedish team hangs out there a lot,” he said, adding that they have their own internal tournament going. “I’m the reigning leader, so I’m the top dog.”
Anri Kawamura, a Japanese freestyle skier in the women’s mogul event, said she’s similarly finding ways to fill her free time, as athletes are expected to stay inside as much as possible and avoid unnecessary trips outside their rooms.
“I’ve been trying to learn some new stuff. Like my coach is Finnish, so I’ve been trying to learn Finnish a bit,” Kawamura told VICE World News.
In a non-pandemic year, she said, she would’ve loved to see Beijing.
“It’s pretty sad, but I can go to the gift shop, I’m allowed. So I sometimes go there and enjoy Beijing like that a little bit,” she said. Lining the shelves are plastic figurines of the Beijing Games’ round panda mascot—Bing Dwen Dwen—colorful tote bags and clothing embroidered with the Olympics logo.
Inside the closed loop are three competition zones. One is located in downtown Beijing, others in the Beijing suburb Yanqing and the city of Zhangjiakou. Each zone comes with its own competition venues and Olympic villages—self-contained communities where some 2,900 athletes spend their time when they’re not at events.
Athletes must scan their QR codes to enter facilities, some of which are covered in a fine layer of artificial snow to give the impression of a wintery town—the same snow that has made headlines as Beijing 2022 becomes the first Winter Games to rely entirely on it. Everyone inside the bubble also needs to keep track of their temperatures daily in a health app. Like at the Tokyo Games, athletes in Beijing must undergo daily COVID-19 testing, wear masks at all times except when eating, and refrain from socializing with athletes from other nations.
Yet, unlike the Summer Olympics, where some staff and journalists were allowed to visit Tokyo, no one inside Beijing’s closed bubble can leave unless they depart the country or undergo weeks of quarantine.
The infamous “anti-sex” cardboard beds that debuted at the Tokyo Games are absent. They’ve been replaced with remote-controlled beds featuring a “zero-gravity mode,” which mimics the feeling of weightlessness. At some venues, athletes described food being served by automatic food preppers that assemble dishes like hamburgers and noodles, while a large pink claw lowers down from the ceiling to deliver food on a circular tray.
Eloffson, the Swedish skier, said that in the village, workers in white hazmat suits walk around sanitizing every surface an athlete touches. “They are really good at disinfecting things—I’m really impressed by that,” he said.
Kolowratová, the Czech ice hockey player, said the measures, while necessary, lent a dystopian atmosphere to proceedings. “I guess the best kind of reference is kind of a Squid Game vibe, where you can’t even see what the people look like. You can literally just see their eyes,” she said.
But while pandemic-related restrictions being placed on those inside in the bubble are explicitly stated in the Beijing Olympics’ rules, there are other more implied red lines that athletes must not cross at this year’s games.
Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, banning political protests during events, has proved more of a talking point at these games than most. With China facing growing international scrutiny over the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong and accusations of rampant rights abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of the country, Olympians have been warned about raising these issues while at the Games.
“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected and anything and any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s International Relations Department, told reporters last month.
Eloffson said that to prepare the athletes, the Swedish team briefed the Olympians on China’s political climate. “We had a Zoom meeting with all the athletes from Sweden, and they just educated us on the political situation here,” he said.
Kolowratová said it was difficult because one had to acknowledge the diplomatic boycotts surrounding the Beijing Games. The U.S., Australia, India, Canada, and Japan, among others, have decided not to send diplomats to these games to protest what they’ve denounced as rampant human rights abuses.
But as the first women’s ice hockey team representing the Czech Republic to attend the Winter Olympics, her team felt it was important to focus on what they were there to do—win a medal.
“Women from a small country can do really big things,” Kolowratová said.