Inside Beijing’s Olympic bubble: robots, swabs and a big bet


BEIJING — The strategy is bold and stifling, and that’s the point.

For Chinese officials, creating a vast bubble was their best (and perhaps only) hope of staging the Olympics safely and preserving the kind of “zero Covid” policy that has been a priority for China. government and a point of national pride.

Games organizers said they had carried out more than 500,000 tests since Jan. 23 and discovered at least 232 cases of the virus, most of them upon arriving people at Beijing International Airport. Eleven people were hospitalized, authorities said.

Here’s a 48-hour journey into the Olympic bubble, starting Monday’s arrival of Air France flight 128 from Paris.

Even before sunlight floods the airport, one need only glance out the window of the Boeing 777 to spot the “closed loop”: tarmac workers organizing Games flights as they arrive at Beijing are dressed in protective gear, the bright white is more surprising than their illuminated orange sticks.

Other people in robes and gloves stand in the catwalk. Then no longer in the cavernous, empty lobby, closed to all but those connected with the Games. Still others wait in small bays, armed with nasal and throat swabs to check the thousands of people who tested negative just before their flights and who are, for the most part, fully vaccinated.

After a few twists in one nostril and a few twirls in the throat, prompting an abundance of gags, the attendant has specimens that are one of China’s last and best chances of containing the virus.

The bus driver sits behind a plastic barrier, letting him and his passengers communicate through gestures and shrugs.

A worker sprays the bus, presumably with disinfectant, as it leaves the airport for a hotel with guards controlling a door that only opens to let bubble-approved vehicles through.

An assistant manager hands over the key to my room, where I will stay until my airport test result is ready. I can however order room service while waiting.

It rings the doorbell. By the time I reach the door, the delivery guy is barely in sight in the hallway, neatly wrapped food abandoned on a table marked “Contactless Transfer Desk.”

At 1:14 p.m., a woman calls with the test result: negative. I can leave my room. Beijing is open, or as open as it will be this trip.

The redesigned city bus travels through Beijing. Each block shows how the serendipity that so often occurs in travel and reporting will be delayed.

Outside the venues, “Closed Loop Area” signs remind the Chinese public that their view of the Olympics on the ground will be through glimpses beyond the fences and guards. “Please don’t cross the line.”

Restaurants beyond the bubble are of course prohibited for Games participants. But the state machinery and the Olympics have created a city in itself. The 400,000-plus-square-foot “Main Media Center” may look like a cross between Epcot and Willy Wonka’s factory, where robots and computers orchestrate floor cleaning, take temperatures and scan event information. identification at checkpoints.

I’ve heard of a robot harassing anyone who isn’t properly masked, and I see machines making dumplings, fried rice, and broccoli. Saucers sometimes descend from the ceiling with glittering bowls of hot food. (The dumplings and broccoli were excellent; the rice, however, was a bit dry.)

Outside after dusk, the 846ft Olympic Tower shimmers with red and blue lights as music throbs just before the Lunar New Year. The nearest squares, however, are largely empty.

I apparently passed the Covid test which I took on Monday evening at the hotel, as part of the daily ritual of covering these Games. I think I will breathe better later, once the threat of infection from traveling to Asia has subsided.

I watch American hockey players and coaches walk the ice in practice. Kendall Coyne Schofield, appearing at her third Games, beams as she poses for a snapshot in the face-off circle. There is, even in this cloistered world, still joy in the sport, still pride that these are the Olympic Games.

My phone rings just before Hilary Knight, an American star striker, plans to chat with reporters.

“One person confirmed positive on flight AF128 seated in SEAT 53A,” the formula email reads.

I flew in seat 54A and am now classified as a close contact.

I hurriedly leave the interview room, a little shaken but mostly unsure of every nuance of the protocols and fearful of inadvertently causing more trouble. Between emails and calls with Terri Ann Glynn, the Olympic logistics mastermind for The New York Times and our designated Covid Liaison Officer, I’m wondering whether to text my wife at home, at 13 hours behind Beijing. I decide to let her sleep.

I take a private car to the media center; the Olympic bus system is not an option for close contacts.

I remember the rules well enough to know that the days ahead will depend on my ability to be “critical” for the Games. I am surprised to learn that I am, and so the rules are basically this: for seven days, medical personnel will come to my hotel room twice a day for tests. I have to eat alone, and I have to avoid buses.

But I can still cover the Games — if I stay negative.

When the doorbell rang this time, the visitor did not run away. Instead, two attendants in blue protective gear wait to begin enhanced testing. I think I hear laughter as I bend down so the man can clear my throat. Maybe I’m getting used to it; I barely yawn.

Around 10:15 p.m., a photographer sends a group text message: “Ambulance again in front of the hotel”, presumably for someone in need of treatment for Covid-19 elsewhere. I wonder if my result has already come back.

It’s not. But a test team will come back to my room in less than 12 hours.

I have no symptoms. I’m awake, however, due to jet lag, and I’m paranoid about turning into a case and being thrown into an isolation center. I eat a piece of chocolate to see if I still have the sense of taste. I do, so I recalculate the potential incubation periods.

But this is an exercise of only limited value. Nothing can stop the infection that might develop in the bubble. I turn my attention to sports writing.

After all, the Games are still on track, as China promised.


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