NBC's broadcasters will call the Winter Olympics remotely from Connecticut rather than in person in China. ESPN has bailed on sending even a single reporter citing a "very challenging" environment in Beijing.
Meanwhile, athletes, coaches and officials from around the world — unable to sit this out — are staring at the dwindling days until the Games begin and the rising reports of the Omicron variant in China and gulping with nerves.
It’s not catching COVID that has people worried.
It’s catching COVID in China.
The Chinese still say they can zero-case this pandemic via isolation and testing measures that assault the sensibilities of much of the rest of the world. That’s especially true with Omicron, which is so extremely contagious (but less dangerous than previous variants) that even once-strict countries have thrown their hands up and decided to mostly just live with this.
Unfortunately the Olympics aren’t being staged in those countries.
It's in China, where the official “playbooks” that rule these Games state that a person who tests positive, even if they are asymptomatic, will be immediately taken to an “isolation facility." If you show symptoms, it's right to a hospital.
The details from there are sparse. That's probably on purpose. There is little on where the “isolation facilities” are located or what exactly they entail. The playbook does offer that:
Meals will be provided three times a day.
Free WiFi will be available (although whether that will be restricted Chinese internet or not is unsaid).
There will be “access to fresh air” through a window that will open but no one will be allowed outside.
Rooms will be approximately 25-square meters (about 269-square feet).
Athletes can request training equipment which will be provided “if available."
“Mental health support” will be available.
Does that sound fun?
Worse, the only way to get out of the “isolation facility” is to “have two consecutive negative COVID-19 [PCR] test results with a sample interval of at least 24 hours."
PCR tests, however, are now famously sensitive and mostly unnecessary after the initial positive result. The rest of the world has concluded that even symptomatic individuals stop spreading the virus after a few days. The CDC says “2-3 days.”
It’s why sports leagues in America — let alone most businesses — allow most who have tested positive to return five days after the initial test. They don’t even bother to keep testing, let alone with PCRs that could continue to come up positive for weeks.
“After 10 days, if your PCR [test] is positive, that is just detecting dead soldiers — remnants of the virus that have persisted in your system,” Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist Bill Schaffner told Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell last month. “It does not mean that you are infectious.”
Added Erin Bromage, an immunology professor from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, “PCR [tests] can stay positive for months after recovery.”
While it seems unlikely China would hold someone for months in isolation, this is also a country that routinely shuts down entire cities after the discovery of just a couple positive cases. No one has any idea what the Chinese government will or won’t do, especially to a foreigner.
As such, anyone who goes to the Olympics risks not just being removed from competition — or in case of coaches and media, their work assignment — but a lengthy stay in an “isolation facility” that could extend for who knows how long.
NBC, who needs its broadcasters to call the competition, determined it can’t risk losing them for the entire Olympics (let alone longer) due to unnecessary PCR testing. While catching COVID inside the "Olympic bubble" may have once seemed unlikely, Omicron changed the dynamics. So it's better to call the action from the States.
Citing “COVID’s changing conditions and China’s zero-tolerance policy,” NBC’s Molly Solomon noted the move was to “make sure we can provide the same quality experience to the American viewers.”
In other words … this looks like a train wreck even if having Johnny Weir sent to a Chinese isolation facility might make for good television.
The actual athletes have no such luxury. This is a once every-four-years — or often once-in-a-lifetime — opportunity. Most are isolating already, but there is concern that they will catch Omicron while traveling to Beijing through multiple airports and on multiple flights. Once in China, they’ll test positive (everyone must be tested daily) and boom, there goes the Olympics with limited chance to get out of isolation even if they are healthy and no longer a threat to anyone.
“Everyone is just worried about getting there,” said Team USA curler Matt Hamilton. “What if you catch it on the way? You work so hard for so many years to reach the Olympics and then you wouldn’t be able to play.”
There are additional concerns over “close contact” determinations which could cause athletes to undergo a week worth of twice-a-day testing, force them, among other things, to live and dine alone and prohibit them from using “indoor fitness facilities” just as peak performance is needed.
For coaches, officials and media, the playbook states that “if your role can be performed by others” you face “21 days of quarantine.” There is no stated determination of what determines “a role that can be performed by others."
Apparently everyone has to trust the Chinese government.
That’s why NBC and ESPN are out and a lot of athletes are nervous.
And if an Omicron outbreak sweeps through the Olympics like it has swept through virtually every other place on Earth, this entire thing can crumble under Chinese protocols that make little sense and serve almost no purpose.