BEIJING — Whatever else can be said about China’s closed-loop system, designed to keep tens of thousands of athletes, officials, journalists and volunteers preserved in a COVID-free bubble, there is this: It’s worked. It’s joyless, it’s agonizing, it’s numbing … but it’s worked.
Now, hang on. Before you start singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” as you pound out a furious patriotic comment, allow me to add some context. I’m in Beijing — I've been here since before Tom Brady retired, but it feels like I’ve been here since Brady was at Michigan — and I’ve spent the entire time living in the most thorough, rigid, regulated COVID containment system in the world.
All the testing, all the daily swabbing, all the tracking, all the sanitizing everything in sight … it’s all resulted in this: On Friday, Feb. 18, the Olympics reported 67,387 screening tests and zero positives. Overall, since the loop locked down, Beijing organizers have conducted 1,741,100 tests, including nearly 14,000 airport tests for incoming arrivals, and reported 436 total positive cases. The number of positive cases has steadily decreased throughout the Games, to the point where multiple days have seen no new cases.
So, yes, the closed loop system has performed exactly as advertised. But it’s come at a phenomenal cost — both financially and in terms of personal freedom. The closed loop has robbed the Olympics of one of its finest traits — the ability for cultures to mix and mingle, to learn from one another, not hide behind petty fears, biases and preconceptions. Athletes stick with athletes, journalists with journalists, and nobody really gets to know the people of China, since we’re all confined behind fences and bus windows.
The closed loop has turned this Olympics from a cultural milestone into a carousel: hotel-media-center-venue-media center-hotel, repeat for 18 days. I’ve had enough hotel buffet meals and quickie ramen noodle cups to last me the rest of my life. I found a brewery tucked away inside the closed loop up in Zhangjiakou, home of snowboarding, and it was like discovering hidden treasure. Other intrepid travelers are discovering restaurants in hotels, trading tips by text to track down food and drink that, well, wasn’t made by a robot.
We’re as confined as preschoolers, room to walk around but no ability to go anywhere on our own. I was at the women’s skating event earlier this week — you might have heard about what went on there — and at one point, I stepped outside for a bit of fresh air. I looked up and saw I was closer to my hotel than I was to the rink — and yet, I would have to wait 20 minutes for a shuttle to cross the street, because I couldn’t exit the closed loop.
Naturally, the IOC has completely missed the entire point by praising the closed loop to the heavens:
“The closed-loop system has been a great success, with an infection rate of 0.01 percent, and it has been one of the safest places on this planet, if not the safest,” IOC President Thomas Bach said during his Friday news conference. “This is a great achievement, which I think has made all of us feel safe and comfortable. The message to the world is that, if everybody is respecting the rules in solidarity, you can even have such a great event like the Olympic Games under the terms of a pandemic.”
Bach unfurled this Nathan Chen-esque spin just a few feet from the edge of the closed loop, where multiple fences, concertina wire and armed guards made sure that everyone was “respecting the rules.” Yes, everyone inside the loop is “safe.” But “comfortable”? Come on.
China decided to take out COVID at the Olympics by brute force, snapping the chains with impunity and severity. Yes, that meant there would be many people — including many athletes — caught up in the net. But to the Chinese Olympic organizers, that was preferable to postponing the Games entirely. In the big picture, it was a success, but on the personal level, it was at best a major inconvenience, at worst a dream-destroying debacle. Just ask Vincent Zhou or any of the other Olympians who saw four years of work evaporate with a positive test.
“The closed-loop system is labor-intensive, expensive, and can have negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of participants,” Dr. Natalie Egnot, a senior supervising health scientist with the consulting firm of Cardno Chemrisk, said in an email to Yahoo Sports. And after eating at the same three restaurants for weeks on end, I can testify to the truth of her statement.
“While this approach may be considered for large, international events such as the Olympics during times of high transmission risk,” she added, “the costs, barriers and negative impacts associated with a closed-loop system are not feasible for most communities or organizations to incur.” In other words, unless the pandemic takes another turn — knock on wood hard enough to break it — the NBA bubble of summer 2020 and the Olympic bubble of February 2022 will be anomalies rather than standard practice.
The Olympics are starting to break up now. Everyone’s returning to their home nations, though not without undergoing one last battery of departure tests and bureaucracy. Most of us won’t continue to wear N95 masks all day, even outside. Most of us won’t continue to have to undergo a morning throat swab with our coffee. Most of us won’t be getting our temperature checked all day by creepy futuristic scanners that size up your condition while you’re just walking past. There are elements from every Olympics that visitors miss — the food, the culture, the competition — but the closed loop won’t ever be one of them.
When I get home, I plan to raise a toast to my fellow loopers, the Olympians, the journalists, the volunteers. I’ll sit outside without a mask on, I’ll drink an ice-cold beer at my favorite pub, and I won’t have to wait half an hour for a shuttle bus to take me everywhere I need to go. It’ll be nice to rejoin the world outside the closed loop.
By the numbers, the Olympics’ COVID solution has been a rousing success. Now, let’s never do it again.