He’d traded his 10-year residency at Burning Man for the hermetic existence of an Olympic athlete, his all-nighters in Ibiza for goggles and a facemask in the open air. And still Benjamin Alexander could not escape the damn virus. He’d traced an initial bout with Covid-19 this time last year to a chairlift, en route to becoming the Cool Runnings of the slopes — after learning to ski at age 32, Alexander will represent Jamaica next month as its first-ever alpine racer at the Winter Olympics. He’d been double-vaccinated, then boosted in November.
Late last month, though, the chalet scene at a qualifying event in Montenegro broke on through. By the time he arrived home for Christmas in London, Alexander had a sore throat, and the aches weren’t from his family’s spare bed. Of course he’d tested positive again; this is the Omicron Olympics he’s bracing for.
“I would love to say that I was in like a big party or an orgy — it was just training with a bunch of athletes half my age,” Alexander, now 38, tells Rolling Stone following a post-quarantine run in Austria. Through a gallows smile of gritted teeth, he equates contagion to competitive advantage: “I now have the immunity to go around licking door knobs when I get to the Olympics if need be. But, look… that’s gonna give me that sense of security and peace of mind now going into the Games, because a lot of people — a lot of athletes — are really, really scared of getting the virus.”
The International Olympic Committee, organizers in Beijing, and the $2 billion global advertising machine swear that everything is going to be just fine this February: A “filtering” process of travelers into China’s draconian “zero-Covid” environment, followed by daily testing within a “closed loop” and country-specific precautions, will combine to create a triple-bubble of the 24th Winter Olympiad — pandemic-proofing that would give Joe Rogan nightmares and put the efforts of the NBA, NFL, and NHL to shame.
But listen to actual Olympians, as Rolling Stone did in real talk with a cross-section of 17 prominent athletes this month, and you begin to comprehend a mutating pressure. After lifetimes preparing for their moment, the Omicron variant is following these young people around the world, straight into a maze of naked capitalism — of germs and depression and greed — that expects blind faith. As potential cracks in the Chinese crackdown emerge, competitors at the Beijing Games will be expected to grin and bear it for the NBC cameras while dreading that one positive test that could wipe them out from competition… and land them in a “medical prison” run by the state.
“China has made their decision, and they’re gonna steamroll this thing.”
“Once you get Covid, you’re done — you can’t race, you can’t do anything, and there’s, like, no point in wasting four years,” the 21-year-old American speed-skater Maame Biney tells RS. “It would really, really suck if they were just like, a week before: ‘Oh, hey! Just kidding! The Olympics are not happening this year. They’ll happen next year.’ That would just be actually devastating.”
More than 175 cases have already surfaced from delegations arriving in China, including at least one snowboarder on Friday, with mounting concern that a wave of athletes could become infected next. Multiple Olympic executives acknowledge to Rolling Stone that on-the-ground organizers and national medical experts have internally discussed the contingency plan of a pause in the action, as the NHL did to take a look in the mirror when Omicron hit the United States in December and the league barred its players from Beijing.
“At this point, anything could happen, and it’s such a weird headspace to be in, not being confident going in that this is what’s gonna happen,” the three-time gold medalist snowboarder Shaun White told Rolling Stone in an extended interview this month. “They’ve easily canceled plenty of things. They could easily turn around and go, ‘Hey, it’s too much. Everybody’s testing positive, and we’re not doing it.’”
But the IOC’s adaptive response to the variant with a patchwork of policies, seen through the eyes of the athletes surviving Beijing’s Omicron gauntlet in the spotlight, make it increasingly clear: Whenever the suits who run the Olympics see through the looking glass of our upside-down pandemic world, they determine that the games must go on, at any cost.
“China has made their decision, and they’re gonna steamroll this thing — if you’re sending an athlete or not, they don’t give a shit,” says Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Olympian at the Winter Games, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “They’re not gonna cancel the Games. They’re gonna blanket this virus as much as possible to control every aspect that they can.”
After the American delegation trickled into Los Angeles to quarantine, test, and train, Team USA’s star-studded Delta charter flight took off this Thursday — one or two isolated bobsledders and a couple of curlers short.
Tabitha Peterson, the world-champion curler whose day job involves putting nasal swabs and vaccine jabs into Minnesotans as a pharmacist at CVS, has witnessed the Omicron threat firsthand. “If the Olympics were taking place in October last year, when cases were super-low, I would say we’d probably be pretty good,” Peterson tells RS. “We even threw out there: Should we be DRIVING to California, so we have one less flight? But, my god, that sounds awful, too.”
Without any elite circling clubs to train in Southern California, some of America’s top curlers were forced to fly commercial from Minneapolis-St. Paul to L.A., from L.A. to Tokyo, and Tokyo into the main arrival hall of Beijing International Airport. Athletes from smaller delegations who can’t afford first-class tickets direct to China, meanwhile, planned to buy seats together, hop-scotch across Asia, and hope for the best.
Charlotte Kalla, a three-time gold medalist in cross-country skiing, woke up at dawn to beat the crowd at her public gym, only to criss-cross Sweden from Sundsvall to Östersund with her 70-page Olympic protocol playbook pulled up on her phone — “it’s kind of like homework,” she tells RS — then join the Swedish cohort in Munich and take a charter to Beijing. (Good thing she didn’t swing through Italy, where her Norwegian rivals are holed up after two positive tests this week; a member of the Brazilian cross-country team, traveling through Italy while awaiting a negative result to enter China, suffered major injuries in a car crash on Thursday and will miss the Games.)
The Australian freestyle skier Matt Graham, meanwhile, had made his way from a broken collarbone in Sweden, to Brisbane for a ramp-up, then home to Sydney. He’s since flown up to Finland to meet his teammates for a week back on the mountain, before hopping aboard the Team Australia flight to China on Wednesday. The Aussie contingent has been encouraged to avoid airplane food, so Graham likes to pull out his pre-packed bowl of spaghetti once everyone else onboard has stopped eating and put their masks back on. “In some ways,” Graham says, “just getting to Beijing is gonna be quite rewarding in itself.”
For all the lessons of the post-vaccine, post-spike Tokyo Games last summer, touchdown at the host country’s airport remains the incubation obstacle that most concerns Olympic officials. “We’re not going to swab at 30,000 feet,” says Dr. Michael Wilkinson, the chief medical officer for Team Canada. “But we also don’t know how many other planes will be arriving at the same time.” IOC advance-team officials who landed early at the dedicated Olympic terminal have told him to expect slightly less limbo than the eight-hour waits reported by athletes to make it through customs and receive a nasal-swab result in Tokyo. But five members of the Canadian traveling party have already tested positive in Beijing.
“In some ways,” says one athlete, “just getting to Beijing is gonna be quite rewarding in itself.”
As touchdown began in earnest this week, athletes were getting tested en masse at Beijing International. (It’s the PCR throat swab this time.) To avoid needless interaction, they’re carrying their own suitcases. (Yes, even Shaun White.) They’ve been shown to their seats on socially-distanced buses run by the Chinese organizing committee. (Bus and taxi drivers are trapped inside the bubble, too.) And then they’re off through the “processing center” to wait up to six hours for test results inside the closed loop — a pandemic purgatory of isolation, action sports, and a nebulous nether region reserved for quarantine.
“It’s pretty incredible that the Olympics is willing to risk and take on this, and try to put all these hoops and hurdles in place so that people are safe,” White tells RS. “And the vaccination, that’s all part of it, obviously, is trying to keep people safe.”
Full vaccination is all but mandated to enter this Olympic thunderdome; unvaxxed athletes and staff were required to complete a three-week quarantine upon arrival in Beijing. Despite the monastic effort of one Swedish gold-medal snowboarder who spoke to Rolling Stone from a Chinese Holiday Inn Express last week, and a Russian plot to exempt their teenage figure-skaters, the rule does not leave much realistic space for preparation. “Twenty-one days is a lot of pause in training,” alpine racer Max Gordeyev tells RS from Kyrgyzstan, one of the least vaccinated countries on Earth. “There is no time to wait.”
But that’s a lot of what life in Beijing’s sprawling campus of athlete housing and dining halls is going to feel like: a lot of waiting around. Ilkka Herola, a Finnish nordic combined skier, admits that he’s worried about getting bored. He’s also in the band Zen and Tonic, which skews toward rock, with the occasional country twang. “I think I will bring my traveling guitar there, because it’s a great way to confine, especially when we are quite alone in our rooms,” he says. “But any song I write would be a quite lonely and sad song.”
As the first Black women’s speed-skater on the U.S. Olympic team, Maame Biney is already a regular in the hype cycle of NBC Sports. Her fierce “alter ego” on the ice, Anna Digger, is to Biney as The Black Mamba was to Kobe Bryant — a self-constructed edifice to hide the vulnerability beneath. “For me, I worry a lot about things, and once I worry, I just get into this spiral and this huge hole,” she tells Rolling Stone. Biney is re-binging Modern Family as her comfort-watch, and she’ll be clicking the sleep icon on her Headspace meditation app every night inside the Beijing bubble, “to de-stress and to de-nervousness my head.”
Get Biney thinking about her inspirations, though, like the mental-health champions Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — and then about her fears, like a super-spreader Olympic hotel or a mid-event quarantine — and she’ll tell you about her real imaginary friend: “It’s a whole, like, what-if thing. I’m basically a fortune-teller. So when I get into my fortune-teller mode, there’s really, like, no way out of it until the actual situation happens.”
IOC officials and national medical officers describe the actual daily routine at the Omicron Olympics as something like this: An athlete wakes up and finds coffee and a collection site for daily testing in the drab lobby of her apartment building in one of three Olympic villages, sub-divided by sport and then by delegation. She can find a window for socially-distanced leg presses, so long as the Canadian sanitation consultants aren’t busy measuring the sweat contamination on the machines, then spraying down the entire gym with their antimicrobial, electro-static shield.
The American bobsledders have been eating lunch with rubber gloves for months, and Team USA’s endurance biathletes are Purell addicts who’ve always avoided the common cold like the plague; members of both were happy to hear that the dining-hall dividers in the 2022 villages are at least see-through. They might not be so happy to smell the leaning tower of Olympic rubbish, which Beijing organizers will keep stored within the bubble during the Games to “protect the health and safety of the Chinese people,” before mass-processing the garbage in what could amount to a literal dumpster fire.
There will, eventually, be actual competition itself, once Olympians venture to the transport mall shuttling them out into the rest of the closed loop, which Rolling Stone has learned will allow 30,000 people and counting. Bike-shares are out and commuter rail is in, so long as you’re cool with the locals peering through the window of the next car over — it’s the closest they’ll get to the action, since these Games are restricted to all but Chinese fans in faraway spectator areas designated at each venue. Last week, in response to the first Omicron case breaking through to Beijing, Olympic organizers cut off ticket sales to limit attendance for a “selected” group of onlookers and conducted mass testing across major swaths of the city, anal swabbing included.
“All the partying will be afterwards. Until then, we’re trying not to test positive.”
Even at the events, two-thirds of which will be played outdoors, some athletes admit to Rolling Stone that they would compete in masks if it avoided a break in the action. Alas, there will be masks on the medal stand, as there were in Tokyo. “It’s impossible,” 19-year-old Richardson Viano, who will represent Haiti on the mountain in the giant slalom, tells RS. “We speak more about Covid and procedures than we ski.”
The Omicron athlete, so long as they are of legal age, can always wind down with some KFC and a drink, although alcohol is more widely available at the alternative hotel accommodations reserved for the more lucratively sponsored class of athletes.
Chinese organizers confirmed to Rolling Stone that one important safety item would continue to be distributed throughout the Olympic villages this year: condoms. As Alexander, the DJ turned one-man Jamaican ski team, explained, “I’ve spoken to a lot of previous Olympians, and one of them who’s had the experience of six Winter Games said to me, quite honestly: ‘The Olympics is nothing other than a fuckfest.’”
Guillaume Cizeron, France’s reigning silver medalist in ice dancing, isn’t so sure. “Yeah, I don’t think they need to do that anymore, although you never know,” he jokes over the phone with RS from self-quarantine in Montreal. “All the partying will be afterwards. Until then, we’re trying not to test positive.”
The sisterhood of the traveling luggage was not impressed. The International Luge Federation had chartered a Russian airliner to November’s training camp in Beijing that was delayed from Frankfurt and too small by half, what with all the sleds, which meant social distancing became a pile-up of snow gear and strangers. “Only three people were sitting in their correct seats,” Julia Taubitz, a 25-year-old luger from Germany, tells Rolling Stone. “The remaining seats were occupied by suitcases.” And one person had Covid.
Despite their protestations to the Chinese health authorities, 12 German racers were identified as close contacts. Even after two years of vigilance and interruption, these world-class lugers became a test-case preview of the second-class citizenry that is quarantine inside Beijing’s closed loop: The asymptomatic still got steered 30 minutes outside the villages to Chinese hotels, where testing was required at five in the morning and 11 at night, Taubitz says, with only a half-hour allowed for training from 8:30 to 9 p.m. and without Chinese first-aid workers allowed to touch the foreign athletes. When the Germans returned to their rooms, she recalls, “the food was put in front of our door, in plastic bags and mostly cold.” Icky shrimp. Potatoes. Soup, if you could call it that. And don’t even think about asking for something vegan.
Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger, the four-time Olympic gold medalist recognized as one of the best female lugers ever, threatened never to return for the Beijing Games if the isolation conditions remained. “They are three- to four-star hotels,” the IOC’s operational coronavirus czar Pierre Ducrey tells RS. “We have visited them and there has been a formal process to ensure that the accommodation is up to standard. They are decent hotels with good services.”
More than 600,000 Covid tests were administered at the Tokyo Games, with 430 positive results but only 29 from athletes — and five of those were Greek synchronized swimmers. Through Friday, according to a Rolling Stone analysis of data from Beijing officials, 595,438 tests (5,417 of them for competitors) revealed 177 confirmed positive cases since Jan. 4, 118 of them at the airport; at least one but as many as 22 could be for an athlete, after 19 competitors or team personnel tested positive on Friday alone. “It’s not so much if we’re going to have cases — we’re going to have cases, that’s a given,” Ducrey says. “If you look at the prevalence of Omicron right now, it’s impossible that people don’t come in and bring Covid. But our ability to block them before they take the flight, at the arrival, or afterwards will demonstrate that we’re able to deal with this successfully.”
Omicron turns up the attention on any voluminous testing effort: The NBA had 237 of its more than 500 players test positive in December, leading to 11 postponed games… not that you’d hear much about the whole global-pandemic thing during the rescheduled games on ESPN and TNT. Now, with a 24/7 TV guide to fill from Beijing, the IOC and its broadcast partners simply won’t tolerate a break in the action. NBC’s announcers will be doing play-by-play from the relative safety of a Connecticut studio, and a diplomatic boycott has its ad-sales team working overtime, but the lugers still gotta luge for that $1.2-million-a-minute primetime airtime — a lead-in to the network’s broadcast of a Super Bowl that falls smackdab in the middle of the Games.
Bob Costas, who was the face of the Olympics for NBC from 1988 to 2016, says that the network was dealt a bad hand between Omicron and “probably the number-one human-rights violator on the planet” but that executives have a responsibility to make sure Covid doesn’t magically vanish on-screen. “All of this hangs over the entire Olympics,” Costas tells Rolling Stone. “It’s an elephant in every room. So it’s difficult to ignore. But in fairness to them and their investment, if you dwell on it too much, basically you’re telling people, ‘This sucks.’”
“But stuff could rear its head — a prominent athlete could be tossed or unable to compete, and that has to be acknowledged,” continued Costas, who now hosts HBO’s Back on the Record. “You could have a young, uber-fit athlete — completely asymptomatic — test positive in an unfortunate timeframe for him or her. You miss a handful of games in the sports that we follow, but here you miss the whole thing that you trained years and years for. That could happen.”
After testing positive, athletes can return from their three-star isolation paradise once they return two negative PCR tests, 24 hours apart. If their swabs keep showing up positive but they’re not sick, a medical review panel may intervene. During that window, however, entire careers can evaporate from a single bus-driver breakthrough.
“It has been my dream since childhood to compete for my country at the Olympic Games,” says Taubitz, the luger with the lousy soup. “And now the anticipation is taken away because you always have the fear of testing positive in the back of your mind.” Indeed, two of her teammates already did.
“Our job as athletes is to make people dream…. Hopefully people will get to maybe forget a little bit about the whole pandemic thing [during] the Olympics.”
And that languishing is merely for the asymptomatic. Come down with a fever and chest pains to go with your perfect fitness, and you’re headed to a Chinese-run hospital half-an-hour from the villages. You will not be going anywhere outdoors again until your temperature stabilizes for three days and the MRI of your lungs starts to look better. IOC officials do not anticipate such elite athletes to take up infirmary bedspace, and, sure, hospital workers will help lug in some free weights if athletes ask nicely. But national medical officers tell Rolling Stone they had to negotiate with Beijing for access to visit athletes if they end up in the three quarantine hospitals — let alone bring them an iPhone charger to contact the outside world.
“If I would be one of the unlucky people stuck in the medical prison, I did do a 10-day silent meditation retreat where you’re not allowed to look anyone in the eyes or have any real human contact,” deadpans Alexander. “So I have a little bit of solitary-confinement training in case I need it when I get there.”
Cizeron, the French ice dancer, skipped this month’s European Figure Skating Championships to avoid getting stuck in Estonia with Omicron. Informed by RS of the Olympic loop’s Chinese Covid hospital, he says, “Estonia would be better!”
“Obviously it’s every athlete’s nightmare to just not be able to compete,” Cizeron goes on. “But our job as athletes is to make people dream…. Hopefully people will get to maybe forget a little bit about the whole, you know, pandemic thing and just dream in front of their screens for the time of the Olympics.”
The skeleton competition falls in the middle of that three-week window, meaning the American favorite Megan Henry won’t even be sticking around for her first closing ceremonies. “They want you to get out immediately,” she tells RS. If Henry were to come down with symptoms, of course, “I’m concerned about being stuck in China and not being able to leave for 30-plus days — it’s like trying not to get bit by a mosquito.”
At final preparation meetings earlier this month, the IOC briefed national committees and athlete representatives on how much had been and would not possibly be changing as a result of Omicron. The NHL took a pause instead of sending its players to Beijing, but that doesn’t mean a curling cluster will put the breaks on the Games. “It doesn’t matter if you’re curling, ice hockey, or figure skating — the reality is the scheme is made to avoid the possibility to create contagion,” says Ducrey of the IOC. “We have to be always imagining that the worst can happen…. This is really ad hoc.”
Matt Carroll, the CEO of the Australian Olympic Committee, has been inside the IOC boardrooms and always leaves them convinced that the Chinese “will move heaven and Earth” to avoid a Covid-induced avalanche. At the final major executive meeting before athletes began their sojourn toward Beijing, concerns were given a full airing. Literally: The “medical prison” is now officially required to provide access to an open window. And, yes, quarantine room service will offer a halfway decent vegan spread.
“Bluntly, it’s gonna be a shitshow for anyone in the space, so you make it the best you possibly can and work within the confines,” Carroll tells Rolling Stone. “The alternative is… what? The games don’t go ahead? Nobody wants that.”