Journalists share their stories of covering the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing
Logistics of travel and COVID protocols are biggest pains
Special to the Tribune
VAIL — Covering the Olympic Games is a dream come true for most sports journalists. In COVID-times and with the Games underway in a nation known for strict, opaque policies, opportunities have been scarce for both major networks and local papers. Still, members from both types of news organizations have sent brave writers to tell the stories of their regional and national heroes.
The Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) sent longtime columnist La Velle E. Neal III to cover Minnesota’s 25 winter athletes. Unfortunately, despite taking every pre-trip precaution — up-to-date triple vaccinated, submitting his health status daily on an app created just for the Olympics for two weeks before departure, and enduring the necessary steps to enter the closed-loop upon arrival — Neal found himself sequestered from the athletes before a hockey puck had been dropped or snowboard had taken flight.
“I have not tested positive for COVID-19, but the person who sat directly behind me for four hours on a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Beijing did,” Neal wrote, saying he landed in protocol because he was labeled a “close contact.”
200 athletes, coaches, and stakeholders had tested positive when Neal penned his personal experience for the Tribune on Feb. 3. Currently, that number is up to 393, with 21-year old medal hopeful Vincent Zhou being the latest to be pulled from competition after a positive test. The figure skater, who can’t even accept his silver medal from the team event, posted an emotional video to social media after being forced out of Tuesday’s singles short program.
“It seems pretty unreal that of all the people it would happen to myself,” he said. “And that’s not just because I’m still processing this turn of events, but also because I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of COVID since the start of the pandemic. I’ve taken all the precautions I can. I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness that I felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times.”
For the next seven days, Neal will have his temperature taken twice daily. Then, once daily for the following seven days. He can’t ride media shuttles but can arrange private car rides to venues and media centers. Competitions are held in three clusters. The Yanqing Zone is 47 miles northwest of Beijing and the Zhangjiakou Zone is 112 miles from the capital. Neal has to work and eat alone. After another seven days, he said he’ll be able to resume normal activities.
“It’s not ideal, but it allows me to be productive,” he wrote, crediting colleague Rachel Blount for keeping him connected.
USA Today, which has 23 staff members in China reported, “”Games organizers in Beijing are taking coronavirus precautionary measures to new heights. For a start, athletes, coaches, observers and media are separated from ‘mainland China’ by a closed-loop Olympic bubble that cordons them off from the outside world. Most participants arrive in China on special charter flights and enter the loop as soon as they land.”
USA Today’s foreign correspondent Kim Hjelmgaard predicted that writer’s experiences of China will be limited to the airport, a hotel room, and the venues, all of which are connected by a closed transportation system.
Media is tested daily and must wear masks at all times in public spaces while also staying a safe distance from others. Neal described the daily testing on KFAN’s Dan Barreiro Show, of which he is a regular guest. “They want you to gag. They feel it’s the best way to get the most thorough result,” Neal said.
“They deliver breakfast to my room every day, which is one egg, one sausage link, one chicken link, and a pasty,” he said of isolation, to which the KFAN cohosts joked that their friend and colleague would return to the U.S. fit and trim. Athletes have complained about the lack of food and abysmla isolation conditions.
Neal arrived at the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the opening ceremonies after being told he could attend. After he found his spot, Blount notified him that his original contact tracer — whom Neal had failed to get in touch with earlier in the day — had called to say the decision to allow him to attend had been flipped because of the number of VIP’s in attendance.
“First of all, it’s ok if I’m in the media room or stadiums at these other events with other reporters, whom I’ll be much closer to then Putin or the President of Egypt or President of Turkmenistan or whomever else was in the audience yesterday because they were up in their big fancy suite area,” he said of the inconsistency.
Neal debated staying, figuring the chances of being spotted in a crowd of 80,000 were slim. “But, every time you enter a building with your media pass, they’ve got these cameras that go off and you see the picture of yourself on your pass as you walk in as you walk into these facilities on the screen,” he said, deciding to play it safe, quickly notifying his editor of the situation instead.
Nat Hertz talked about his experience covering the cross-country ski events for Fasterskier.com and the Anchorage Daily News on the Devon Kershaw Show on Feb. 5. His photographer credential has allowed him to go onto the cross-country course, a perk which has enabled him to empathize with athletes dealing with the bone-chilling subzero winds on the wide-open Zhangjiakou venue. “If you have a non-photographer credential, you can not go onto the course and you’re basically just like watching the race from the stadium, kind of the T.V., and you’re just sort of like, ‘why am I here,’” he said.
Hertz said officials limited the number of reporters allowed in the mixed zone, the only place where media can talk to athletes, albeit with a six-foot gap. Once that number is reached, it’s tough luck for those on the outside. “You have to just stand elsewhere where you can’t listen,” he said.
He was told that because he has a photography credential, he would not be allowed in the mixed zone altogether.
“I was like, ‘well, so should I just fly back to Alaska because what is the point of being here if I can’t talk to the athletes,” Hertz said.
After burning six hours navigating the high-speed bullet train system, which turns a three-hour journey into a 50-minute ride — “That was pretty life-changing,” Hertz described — to pick up his credential bib, he returned to Zhangjiakou and was told he had missed the window to go to his photo position.
“There’s always a learning curve at the Olympics,” he said.
Logistics have also been somewhat of a nightmare for Neal.
“It’s been interesting from that standpoint; just trying to be compliant and to fill out everything they want us to fill and then being at the right place at the right time, to make sure you have your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed to make sure you have access to be at all the events you want to cover,” he summarized.
In the Olympic spirit
Kershaw, a three-time Canadian Olympian, speaking with Hertz from his home in Norway, said, “I don’t envy you, I’m not going to lie.”
Hertz replied, “The thing I’ve found most interesting, I think I’m 36 hours in — you know there’s all this talk about the people in PPE, the kind of crazy, dystopian, contagion-vibe of this whole situation, but I gotta say, you know today, I got on a bus to a venue. It’s packed with people, right, and you’re like, anywhere else in the world right now, we’d all be done,” he said.
“We’d be out in six days. The entire Olympic situation would be infected with COVID. We’d all be on lockdown. The only reason this works is because China is completely draconian about it.”
Hertz said the overall experience isn’t much different than his other Olympic jobs.
“And the other thing about it is you know, there’s all this discussion where people are like, ‘oh, it’s terrible, you’re in the bubble, you can’t talk to the Chinese populace.’ The amount of time you spend not passed out or at the venue dialing it in on your laptop and waiting for people to come through the mixed zone…it’s like, nobody does that anywhere,” he said.
“So honestly, after the first day of dealing with the crazy airport pass and being locked in your room waiting for your COVID result, it kind of feels like any other Olympics, with masks.”
In some spaces, volunteers have been replaced by robots, who are busy spraying disinfectant in hotels and preparing and delivering food. USA Today columnist Nancy Armour, who has covered every Olympics since 1996, believes the closed-loop is an excuse for China to prevent the world from seeing human right’s violations like the imprisonment of more than a million Muslim Uyghurs.
“Normally our news reporter here would be out speaking with regular people in China, he’d be going to Tiananmen Square and talking to people. We don’t have the opportunity to do that this time, and I think that’s done with purpose,“ she was quoted in a piece by Nicole Carroll.
Regardless, volunteers have demonstrated incredible resilience in portraying the joy and unity of the Olympic spirit.
“And they’re like standing out there — I’m out there in like five layers, fully kitted up, barely comfortable,” Hertz said.
“These guys are in their standard issue Olympic raincoat. Not even able to run around, in a full-face shield. You walk past them and they’re like frosted in, and you’re like Jesus! It’s nothing but generosity and friendliness.”
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