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Beijing Winter Games recreate Tokyo's 'parallel world' separating events from residents

The entrance to an apartment complex sealed off after coronavirus infections were confirmed among its residents is seen in Beijing on Jan. 31, 2022. (Mainichi/Koichi Yonemura)

BEIJING (Mainichi) -- The Beijing Winter Olympics kick off on Feb. 4, with some events starting Feb. 2, just as the coronavirus's omicron variant is spreading faster. Now, both the city of Beijing where citizens live and its Olympic "bubble" for athletes to avoid outside world contact are on high alert.

    Beijing is recreating the "parallel world" symbolic of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in summer 2021. The term was used by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesperson when explaining that the coronavirus spread in Japan, then under a state of emergency, would not affect athletes under the "bubble" system.

    The 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing's first since the 2008 Summer Games 14 years ago, have become a celebration separate from its residents.

    On Jan. 31, the Lunar New Year's Eve this year, a large blue sign hung at the entrance of a Beijing apartment complex. It read, "This complex is under lockdown. All outsiders are forbidden to enter." An iron fence blocked off its gate. Quarantine officials in simple protective clothing stood guard, and public security vehicles also patrolled.

    The complex, about 3 kilometers from the National Stadium commonly known as the Bird's Nest -- the opening ceremony venue -- was sealed off in late January after three people were confirmed to have the coronavirus.

    China's "zero coronavirus" policy dictates that if just one person is infected, their entire housing complex must be sealed off and residents are required to take daily PCR tests. The Chinese New Year on Feb. 1 is the country's most important holiday, a time when families and relatives gather. But almost no one was walking around the complex, and residents appeared to be quietly spending their holidays at home.

    The Beijing Winter Olympics will be held using the "bubble" system. Behind a fence marked "closed loop," citizens take photos of Games mascot Bing Dwen Dwen in Beijing on Feb. 1, 2022. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

    Although Beijing was reporting no new infections for a while, the case was confirmed in mid-January. Chinese health authorities said they could not rule out the possibility the virus was transmitted by mail from Canada. So far, over 100 people have complained of COVID-19 symptoms. People actively go out and gather during Chinese New Year, which is overlapping with the Olympics, and quarantine officials are taking strong measures to contain local infections.

    The Chinese government initially planned to sell Olympic tickets to attract spectators, but eventually decided to limit audiences to invited guests only. Experts familiar with China's situation speculate that the invited guests are mainly Chinese Communist Party executives and people connected with Games sponsors; it's also thought the measures are down to wariness of potential infection spreads from Olympic venues.

    Some took to the Chinese-controlled internet to complain, with messages including, "Not everyone invited to an event is a fan of that sport. Conversely, people who really like the sports aren't allowed to watch. What's the point?"

    Meanwhile, the "bubble" where athletes and officials stay is even stricter than at the Tokyo Olympics, and referred to as a "closed loop." At the Tokyo Games, people were allowed as a general rule to leave the bubble 14 days after the time they entered Japan, but in Beijing, they are not allowed outside the closed loop at all. An IOC official has stressed that "the virus will not be brought into Beijing," which, on one side, is a statement telling that athletes are in a "different world" to citizens.

    Hidenori Tomozoe, president of the Japan Alliance For School Physical Education and an expert on the Olympics and sports culture, said, "The original Olympic movement is to convey the idea of world peace and other concepts through sports. The Olympics are a 'festival' different from ordinary sports events." He added, "An Olympics separated from the general public is not consistent with its original concept."

    (Japanese original by Koichi Yonemura, China General Bureau; and Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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