Olympic officials: Omicron won’t cause postponement of Beijing Games, and fans could attend

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 07: A visitor walks by the logos for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics at Shougang, a former power plant which now also houses the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, on December 7, 2021 in Beijing, China. The games are set to open on February 4, 2022.(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A top Olympics official said definitively Tuesday that the 2022 Winter Games, set to begin Feb. 4 in Beijing, will not be postponed by the spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the chair of the Coordination Commission for the Beijing Games, was asked on a videoconference whether there were any imaginable circumstances that could lead to postponement.

"The answer is no," he said confidently. Beijing organizers have designed a bubble-like "closed loop" system that, Samaranch said, "can cope with mostly everything that can happen in the world about and around COVID."

Beijing Olympics are prepared for Omicron

Omicron, a newly-identified variant that many scientists believe spreads faster than earlier variants, has sparked concern across the globe. Dozens of countries have now detected it and/or moved swiftly to restrict travel. Hundreds of athletes and officials from some of those countries are scheduled to fly to Beijing in late January and early February for the Olympics.

Organizers, though, say they’re prepared. In October, they released initial versions of “playbooks” that outline COVID-19 countermeasures even stricter than the ones in place at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer. Those measures include a meticulously planned “closed loop” system, whereby athletes, officials, journalists and others involved in the Games will only be allowed to travel between their lodging, competition venues and a few other select locations, without coming into contact with the Chinese public.

All of them will be tested daily as well. And China’s travel restrictions ensure that a vast majority will be vaccinated. Those who aren’t will be subject to a 21-day strict quarantine, which isn’t feasible for elite athletes preparing for competition.

Within the plan, Olympic officials said Tuesday, there is flexibility. “We have done all the rehearsals, all the possible situations. [Organizers] have prepared for any possible contingency,” Samaranch said. “It's not that we do not expect COVID to move back or forward. But we are ready for any movement that takes place.”

It’s unclear what, exactly, those contingency plans might be. Cristophe Dubi, the International Olympic Committee’s executive director of the Games, noted that prior to Tokyo, organizers ramped up countermeasures for designated countries that had been hit hard by the Delta variant. "If we need to introduce some specific measures [ahead of Beijing], we certainly will,” Dubi said Tuesday. “This would take into effect, I would feel, within the last 14 days prior to coming to China."

Dubi, however, said that no Omicron-inflicted adjustments to drafts of the “playbooks” have been made yet. Final versions of those playbooks are expected this month.

Beijing Olympics 'planning for presence of spectators'

One decision that could be impacted by the evolution of the virus involves fans. Organizers previously announced that no foreign spectators would be permitted to travel to Beijing for the Games, but said that people from mainland China could be allowed to attend as fans. Tickets have not yet been sold, but Dubi said Tuesday that “organizers are planning for presence of spectators.”

“No decision at this point in time,” he said. But everything, from concessions to crowd control at and around venues, is “planned for an operation with spectators.”

China’s uber-strict “zero COVID” approach to corralling the virus has led many insiders to believe that the government craves packed venues, to give the illusion of a festive atmosphere to global television audiences, and to showcase the country’s supposed superiority to the world.

“They're gonna fill the venues with Chinese people, or Chinese military, or whoever,” one person unaffiliated with these Games but with decades of experience in the Olympic world told Yahoo Sports last week. “It's gonna be a Chinese Games for Chinese people.”

Dubi said that a final decision on fans would be made in the coming weeks. And if it is that fans will be welcomed, “we will get, for sure, the [ticket] sales up and running,” he said.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijan acknowledged that Omicron could “bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control,” but said he was “fully confident that the Winter Olympics will be held as scheduled, smoothly and successfully.”