The Closed Loop of the Beijing Olympics
Governance

The Closed Loop of the Beijing Olympics

A zero-COVID paradise or sci-fi fantasy?

A  pedestrian passes a sign marking the barrier of the "Closed Loop," a precaution against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, January 30, 2022.
A pedestrian passes a sign marking the barrier of the "Closed Loop," a precaution against COVID-19, ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, on January 30, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In 2008, Beijing welcomed the international community to a Summer Olympics that many, including people in China, saw as a landmark event in China's opening to the world and integration into the global system. Fourteen years later—on February 4—the Olympic torch was lit once again in Beijing, this time marking the start of the Winter Games. However, China’s attitude is no longer one of openness, and a serious tone has rippled across the 2022 Winter Olympics.  

Though China was the first country to experience the COVID-19 pandemic, within four months, it effectively halted domestic spread of the novel coronavirus in April 2020. Since then, China has maintained a relatively COVID-free society through strict border closures, mass testing, high-tech monitoring, and harsh lockdowns, allowing most Chinese citizens to live a "zero COVID" life. The approach has been so successful that Chinese President Xi Jinping has staked much of his political legitimacy on the government's ability to maintain this zero COVID stasis as long as it is needed. However, the global spread of the highly infectious omicron variant and the concurrent arrival of 30,000 athletes from outside of the country, coaches, foreign media, and other event participants for the Winter Games poses perhaps the greatest threat to China’s strategy yet.  

Fearful of experiencing the record-breaking COVID surge that plagued Japan during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics—which the International Olympic Committee has stated was unrelated to the Games—Beijing has imposed even more stringent COVID control measures, creating what it calls a "closed loop" ecosystem. Some journalists in attendance have likened the health protocols to "dystopian fiction," while China has said the measures are necessary for a "streamlined, safe, and splendid" Games.  

Our slideshow peels back the curtain on what it takes to maintain a zero-COVID Olympics for athletes, participants, media, and staff. 

A security personnel stands guard at a closed loop bubble area, ahead of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China, February 1, 2022.
Map of Beijing Olympic Village
A security guard stands at the entrance of a media hotel inside a closed loop area designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 26, 2022.
Staff members wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), wait for passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China, January 31, 2022.
Medical workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), work at a COVID-19 testing site at Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 31, 2022.
Beijing has embraced the use of robots in the 2022 Winter Olympics to limit human-to-human interaction
A bartender in personal protective equipment (PPE) prepares a cocktail in a hotel for journalists and officials of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, February 3, 2022.
Two hotel staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) deliver a Margherita pizza wrapped in cling film that was ordered with room service at a hotel for journalists and officials o
Facility staff observes a lunch delivered by a robotic cooking machine which cooked the meal at the dining hall at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
People eat between plastic barriers at the dining hall of the main media center at Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing
DOCUMENT DATE: February 02, 2022 2022 Beijing Olympics - Speed Skating - Training - National Speed Skating Oval, Beijing, China - February 2, 2022.
man sits in hallway
Medical staff in personal protective equipment are seen at a speed skating training session for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, January 28, 2022
A cleaner in personal protection equipment clears garbage at a venue office decorated for the Lunar New Year at Yanqing National Alpine Ski Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 30, 2022.
Dr. Ding Hongtao, part of the medical staff, blows a kiss to his girlfriend through screens of glass that separate them because of the "closed loop," a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) prevention measure
Fans inside the stadium before the match.
cleaning an ice rink
Staff members in personal protective equipment (PPE) during training
Athletes of China wave Chinese flags during the opening ceremony.
Close
A security personnel stands guard at a closed loop bubble area, ahead of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China, February 1, 2022. Map of Beijing Olympic Village A security guard stands at the entrance of a media hotel inside a closed loop area designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. Staff members wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), wait for passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China, January 31, 2022. Medical workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), work at a COVID-19 testing site at Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 31, 2022. Beijing has embraced the use of robots in the 2022 Winter Olympics to limit human-to-human interaction A bartender in personal protective equipment (PPE) prepares a cocktail in a hotel for journalists and officials of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, February 3, 2022. Two hotel staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) deliver a Margherita pizza wrapped in cling film that was ordered with room service at a hotel for journalists and officials o Facility staff observes a lunch delivered by a robotic cooking machine which cooked the meal at the dining hall at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics People eat between plastic barriers at the dining hall of the main media center at Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing DOCUMENT DATE: February 02, 2022 2022 Beijing Olympics - Speed Skating - Training - National Speed Skating Oval, Beijing, China - February 2, 2022. man sits in hallway Medical staff in personal protective equipment are seen at a speed skating training session for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, January 28, 2022 A cleaner in personal protection equipment clears garbage at a venue office decorated for the Lunar New Year at Yanqing National Alpine Ski Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 30, 2022. Dr. Ding Hongtao, part of the medical staff, blows a kiss to his girlfriend through screens of glass that separate them because of the "closed loop," a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) prevention measure Fans inside the stadium before the match. cleaning an ice rink Staff members in personal protective equipment (PPE) during training Athletes of China wave Chinese flags during the opening ceremony.
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Samantha Kiernan is a program coordinator for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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