The Beijing Winter Olympic Games are about to begin. What’s it like when these global events are ruled by COVID protocols? We cast a glance back to Tokyo to find out…
This week, thousands of athletes from all over the world will descend on Beijing, China, for the 24th Winter Olympics. But for the second time in a row, this will be an Olympics largely without spectators.
What exactly this means isn’t completely clear: in a January 17 announcement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) merely said that in order to protect against COVID-19, tickets will be limited to invited “groups of spectators”, presumably mostly or entirely from China.
For those of us watching on TV, this means the experience will be different enough: no cowbell-clanging fans thronging the cross-country ski courses, no roar of applause for the figure skaters, no dense-packed crowds lining the fences at the base of ski runs. But if the previous COVID-impacted Olympics, the 2020 Summer Games (held last July-August in Tokyo, Japan, after being delayed for a year) are any indication, the differences will be even more pronounced for the athletes.
“It was weird watching people get their medals with no fans in the stands,” says US distance-running star Kara Goucher, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, then served in Tokyo as a commentator for NBC Sports. “I feel like the athletes lost some of that excitement, not to have their loved ones around them,” she told Cosmos.
It’s a hardship that would have been particularly keenly felt by those with young children. When Goucher ran in 2012, her son was a toddler. “I don’t know how I would have been able to run without [him] there,” she says. “I would have done the best I could, but you’re taking such an important part out of your life.”
But that’s exactly what COVID has forced other new mothers to do. Canadian 800m runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu had to leave a two-year-old daughter behind, Goucher says, and US sprint star Allyson Felix (who has won medals in five successive Olympics) had to do the same with her preschooler.
Strict COVID protocols also would have affected the experience, Goucher says, with the need for face masks, frequent testing, and the constant presence of hand sanitisation stations. Not only were these distractions from normal preparation, but they were constant reminders of the threat of contracting the virus and getting booted out of the Games before you even had a chance to compete.
Not to mention the barrage of news reports about athletes to whom this happened. One high-profile example, Goucher says, was in the pole vault where American star Sam Kendricks, widely believed to be a medal contender, tested positive and had to drop out. Then it was revealed that three Australians might have been exposed to him, and the entire Australian team got a giant scare. By the time the Games ended, it was reported that 29 athletes had tested positive.
Athletes never want to admit that outside factors affect their performance, Goucher says, but the reality is that “there were elements of being fearful”.
Social-distancing requirements also made the Tokyo COVID Olympics different from usual, and will probably do the same in Beijing.
Part of the normal Olympic experience is socialising in the Olympic Village with athletes from all over the world. But in the COVID Olympics, everyone has to stay in their own bubble. Not quite in quarantine, but not far from it.
Psychologically, that can be extremely hard on athletes already separated from their normal support systems, something that American sprinter Gabby Thomas discovered the hard way.
Only a few weeks prior, Thomas had run the third fastest women’s 200m time in history. Back home, she was considered a sure thing for gold or silver. But in Tokyo, locked into relative isolation without direct access to her friends and family, she turned to social media. “I wanted to be on the socials because it’s fun to share the Olympic experience and see a lot of support,” she later told Women’s Running magazine.
Maybe that wasn’t the best idea, because social media can be cruel. During the qualifying rounds and the semi-finals, Thomas said, “everyone was saying I looked so horrible that the US wasn’t going to get a medal”.
Thomas eventually won bronze, plus silver in a relay, but her shift to social media to make up for the loss of other support may have gotten in her head. “There were a lot of comments that were making me nervous,” she recalled. “It was definitely in the back of my mind the entire time, just what people are going to say about me. When I was tagged in so many negative comments, that’s when I realised, ‘Wow, so many people are watching and so many people actually care.’”
All of which is bad. If there’s a single thing you are most likely to hear from elite coaches, it’s this: expectations are deadly. Better to get into what athletes call “the zone” and psychologists call a state of “flow,” and just do your thing.
“It’s all about how to stay in the process of the competition,” says long-time coach Bob Williams, of Eugene, Oregon.
COVID restrictions can also disrupt pre-race training. When the US mixed 4x400m relay team was initially disqualified in the qualifying round for a baton pass outside of the proper exchange zone, the runners involved, Elija Godwin and Lynna Irby, were asked how this could possibly happen. The answer was twofold. First, the team had had only two days to practise. But more importantly, they weren’t able to see the track in advance and examine its markings. “Today was our first day of being able to see the track,” one of them said after the race.
They were later reinstated because the error had been made by an official, who (possibly due to similar COVID-based restrictions to the track, pre-competition) had lined them up on the wrong mark. But it highlights a problem that may afflict the Beijing Winter Olympics as well: reduced ability to preview courses and confirm details that in a normal Olympics would be hammered out well in advance.
That said, the Tokyo Summer Olympics were still the Olympics, and the Beijing Winter Games will clearly retain the elevated sense of occasion and importance. “I didn’t hear a single athlete complain,” Goucher says. “Every athlete I heard was just so grateful for the opportunity in a way we haven’t seen in the past.”
Two-time Australian Olympian Jane Flemming, one of the commentators for NBC’s Peacock live-streaming service, agreed. The Tokyo Olympics, she suggested in a telecast, were a bit like a thumb in the eye to COVID. “I feel like it’s been a moment for the whole world, and that’s one of the things Olympism is all about. It’s a global collection and celebration of what’s honourable and good in the human spirit.”
Her co-host, Australian-American Leigh Diffey, added that it wasn’t just the athletes who had to deal with the pandemic. “The Japanese have been so welcoming and so hospitable,” he said. “I just felt sorry for them that they weren’t able to be part of that great festival of athletics in the stadium.”
Despite that, he said, “It was the best of the five games that I’ve covered. That may sound strange, because the previous ones had a crowd. But I think there’s something so poignant, perhaps because you’ve got that old adage that you only know what you’ve got when it’s gone. And the fact that we came so close to not having Tokyo made us savour the great performances even more, even if we didn’t have a crowd.”
If so, the upcoming Winter Games may also be one to remember.
Richard A Lovett
Richard A Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to Cosmos.