Most people following the 2022 Olympic Winter Games are aware of the restrictions that athletes, media and other Olympic-related personnel are under, and may be familiar with the “closed loop” term and “playbooks” to adhere to, but may not know exactly what it entails.
The “loop” includes all Olympic event and training venues, the Main Media Centre, accommodations (which includes the Athletes Village and various hotels) and transportation between all of these. The event venues themselves – which for ice hockey tournaments means the National Indoor Stadium and Wukesong Sports Centre – are divided so that spectators and certain staff can enter without encountering people in the loop.
Where at exactly you have access to varies slightly depending on what type of accreditation you have. While my accreditation as a journalist allows me access to all Games venues and therefore, in theory, would allow me to watch any Olympic events I wanted, in practice, my Olympic experience was limited to the two arenas, my hotel, the MMC and transportation between those places.
And in truth, that’s not much different from a “normal” Winter Olympics for an IIHF.com writer. The schedule for the last several Olympics have scheduled hockey games at approximately 12:00, 16:30 and 21:00 daily, so a typical day during the Olympics for me involved arriving at whichever rink I was going to that day around 11:00 and leaving around midnight, often later. There are some days that don’t require me to cover three games, but not many.
As USA forward Hilary Knight said, “Nine P.M. starts aren’t easy. Getting back to the village at 1:30, 2:00 A.M, you feel like you went clubbing all night.
HotelI usually leave my hotel around 10:30 in the morning and get back some time around 1:00 in the morning. Not as late as hockey players got back to the Olympic Village, apparently, but it was virtually a nightly occurrence – 15 times in 17 days, including 12 in a row.
Most IIHF personnel is accommodated at the same hotel, including game officials, supervisors and staff from various departments. Of course, all of these people have their own schedules and therefore spend different portions of the day at the hotel. While our hotel had breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, I was only there for breakfast, with rare exceptions. Breakfast is pretty much your standard international hotel variety with eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, waffles, toast, cereals and fruit along with Chinese staples such as rice, noodles, buns and various vegetables. Meals can only be consumed while seated at a table with plastic barriers, and this is the only time you may remove your mask, other than when in your own room. A temperature check is required before entering the restaurant and gloves to take the food.
If you get back too late for dinner, you can order room service, which is an interesting experience itself because your order is delivered by a robot. Robots also spray disinfectant everywhere, and can appear anywhere, such as when walking down the hallway or stepping out of the elevator.
When leaving the hotel, everyone must pass through security. Every morning, everyone must also take a PCR test. At our hotel, that’s done outside, which is really fun when you have to wait in line and it’s minus 10 Celsius or colder. And yes, it can certainly get that cold in Beijing in February. But there haven’t been long lines luckily. It has been below freezing most days throughout these Games. It’s a very dry cold, which some people say is a good thing, but if you’re used to a more humid climate, your skin can get very dry. Fortunately, skin moisturizer is in every hotel room.
Over 1.7 million PCR tests have been administered. Of the 13,628 persons who landed in Beijing, 265 were tested positive at the airport according to the organizers and further participants were tested after the arrival. The numbers have gone down to mostly zero cases per day late into the Olympics.
The closed loop system includes a transportation system of buses that works much like a city’s public transit that has several routes with scheduled stops. It took some time getting used to, but if your have a regular daily schedule, it doesn’t take long to memorize your times and bus numbers. Our hotel had direct lines to both arenas and the MMC, which serves as a hub. It’s on these bus rides that you get to do your own real sightseeing of Beijing during the Games.
The Main Media CentreThe MMC is a huge, three-story compound in the vicinity of the Athletes Village and several of the competition venues that all accredited media have access to. It’s also the location of the International Broadcast Centre.
In addition to a full floor dedicated to workstations separated by plastic barriers while giant TV screens simultaneously show live action from numerous Olympic events, the MMC also includes a post office, a souvenir shop (with a perpetually long queue to enter), a convenience store, a couple of cafes and a canteen where a variety of Chinese and western meals can be purchased. These meals are often prepared by... robots. Even the bartender is a robot. Due to media rights we may unfortunately not show it here but you can find videos somewhere else. Like at the hotel, all meals must be consumed while seated at tables with plastic barriers and it’s the only time you can remove your mask.
The arenasThe way this year’s Olympic hockey tournaments were scheduled, most women’s games were at Wukesong Sports Centre and most men’s games were at National Indoor Stadium, with a few exceptions either way. Both are large arenas, with capacities over 15,000 although attendance was capped at 1,000 spectators from outside the loop per game.
For those staying at the IIHF hotel, Wukesong was the much closer venue – only about a five minute ride – whereas NIS was advertised as 32 minutes, but is more like 25 after midnight and up to 50 during Beijing rush hour, despite a dedicated lane on the highway for Games transportation.
Life at the arena for members of the media is pretty much split between the media tribune – a portion of the stands converted to seating for press that includes a table and internet connection – the media centre – a room in the bowels of the arena that’s a quieter place to work – and the mixed zone, a place where interviews with players and coaches can take place.
It can be tough to navigate, especially on one’s first visit to a particular arena, but thanks to the many friendly volunteers present, it runs smoothly. After several visits, faces of volunteers become familiar and they might even remind you when you have forgotten to sign up for the mixed zone.
The mixed zone during these Games wasn’t much different that most other Olympics or World Championships, except for the requirements of masks and two metres distance to athletes. This meant that, for the first time in my life, I had practical use for a selfie stick, which I used to mount my mobile phone to use as a recording device.
While players are required to walk through the mixed zone, they’re not required to stop and talk, and many don’t. For most teams, however, you can count on at least one or two players who are willing to speak to the media, win or loss. Early in the men’s tournament, I had a particularly good chat with an emotional Frans Nielsen, who in his first Olympic game at age 37 scored the game-wining goal on a penalty shot for the Danish men’s hockey team’s first-ever Olympic win. While the captain for most teams is that player, for other teams, it is the player who is strongest in English, such as ROC’s Alexandra Vafina or Japan’s Akane Hosoyamada, who often spent a long time in the mixed zone speaking to the media, patiently answering questions and acting as their teams’ unofficial spokespeople.
For journalists, it’s a good idea to get to the mixed zone as quickly as possible after the game. That’s because, while some players and coaches will stick around for a long time answering questions, others will have already come and gone if you arrive too late. This poses a problem for a writer if he has to write a recap and go to the mixed zone for the same game. If the game is a blowout, it’s not too difficult to have a recap basically completed halfway through the third period, with only slight edits to be made if a late, meaningless goal or two is scored. If a game is close, it’s a little more difficult, but if you have the major details of the game written out, have two intro paragraphs prepared and leave some space to add details of an overtime goal or shootout. This has to be done quickly, and will therefore probably need a bit of polishing or expanding when adding quotes from the mixed zone.
Then there are the games that look like blowouts but then there’s a comeback, and a late tying goal. These require the most work of all. Such was the case in the group stage game between Sweden and Finland, where the Swedes led 3-0 after two periods but the Finns rallied late to tie it and then won in overtime, requiring major revision and then a sprint down the hallway toward the mixed zone, dodging robots and hoping I hadn’t already missed too many players. While these can be stressful moments for a writer, these are the games that are most memorable in the long run and, after all, if you can’t enjoy games like that, or Slovakia’s shootout win over the USA in the quarter-finals, are you really a hockey fan?
The Athletes VillageWhile it was possible for journalists to visit the Village to interview athletes at the edge of it and in the fresh air, I never personally went there. Fortunately, some athletes did document their time there, such as Czech defender Samantha Kolowratova.
Again, we wouldn't have much time for those things in a "normal" Olympics either. Like some athletes have said, it would be nice to see more of Beijing than what's visible from the window of a bus, but that can be for another visit during more "normal" times.