On Saturday morning, I shaved for the second day in a row, which is a thing that I definitely have not done since the start of the pandemic and may not be a thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.
But my friendly neighborhood COVID-19 advisors (thanks, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Zink) tell me that an N95 mask seals much better against a clean-shaven face. And a positive test would throw a huge wrench in my plans for the next few weeks.
Those plans are a trip to Beijing to cover the 2022 Winter Olympics there — which is simultaneously an enormous privilege and an Olympic-level pain in the you-know-what.
On the one hand, I follow cross-country skiing like many Alaskans follow football. And for the month of February, I’m going to get paid to watch races, talk to athletes and coaches and write about them. I’m also getting a most-expenses-paid trip to a new country and continent, where I’ll experience a totally different culture and form of government.
On the other hand, I actually might not get to do any of those things, courtesy of the rigorous battery of COVID-19 screening measures that I must pass before I’m even allowed into the country.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been recording my daily temperature and (non-) symptoms on a Beijing Olympics website. Before my flight to Asia, I have to take two separate, sensitive COVID tests at a Chinese government-approved lab — of which there are none in Alaska — hence a three-day layover in Los Angeles.
In China, I’ll be tested daily — including a swab upon my arrival at the Beijing airport, whereupon I’ll be sent to my hotel room to quarantine until my sample comes back negative. Unless it comes back positive: a ticket to an “isolation hotel,” which sounds like code for a Xinjiang detention camp but actually looks pretty cushy, according to photos shared by the organizers.
Knowing that a single misstep could torpedo my trip has been intensely stressful, particularly as COVID case rates in Alaska have spiked to all-time highs in the lead-up to my departure. And I have nothing at stake except the chance to write a few thousand words, unlike athletes who can see — and are seeing — medal hopes and years of training go up in swabs.
Once in China — if I get to China — the government has decreed that there will be no sightseeing or any other straying from the bubble known as the “closed loop.” This is the area open to athletes, support staff, journalists and dignitaries that’s completely walled off from the rest of Chinese society, so as to avoid mixing our potentially COVID-contaminated respiratory droplets with the general public.
That means no sightseeing, no interviewing locals about Chinese society, politics or human rights abuses and no sampling the cuisine outside of what’s offered at the hotels and media centers. This is exceptionally non-negotiable. Organizers, in a 12-page Q&A posted a few months ago, offered a terse response when asked by one journalist about walking to an event, instead of riding the organizers’ bus service: “Media cannot walk to the venues from the hotels.” Violators face “financial sanctions.”
Meanwhile I, also like the athletes, have been advised not to use, or even bring, my personal electronic devices to Beijing, given the potential for snooping by the Chinese government. So I’m typing this from a burner laptop, and will activate a burner phone before I take off for Asia. I’ve furnished organizers with my vaccination records and registered to use three other different online platforms: the “arrivals and departures system,” the “accommodation management system” and the “media extranet.” Every media outlet also must have its own “COVID liaison officer” — so that’s me, the only Anchorage Daily News and FasterSkier representative at the Games. (Editors, please update my business cards when I get home.)
All that, and my near-crippling COVID anxiety notwithstanding, I’m thrilled. There are always compelling, interesting stories at the Olympics. I’m eager to bring them to an American audience and I plan to push the limits of the Beijing bubble almost until it pops. (For the Chinese government employee monitoring this column: This is not an admission of guilt.)
I’m expecting some highlight-worthy races and performances by Canadians, Americans and Alaskans on the trails. But I also think that some of the most interesting stories will happen off-snow. The Games directly intersect with China’s growing geopolitical power and its government’s efforts to assert itself in global politics, and I hope that my dispatches from the country can offer some small and personal glimpse into how those stories are unfolding.
Not to mention that the whole experience is a window into an alternative COVID reality — one where harsh government mandates and measures have held the virus largely at bay. Without casting any judgment on America’s and Alaska’s responses, it’s safe to say that many states and cities here have taken an approach to COVID that preserved personal freedoms, whereas China’s far more restrictive approach undeniably left the country with better collective health outcomes — fewer cases, fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths on a per person basis.
Those themes — the collective versus the individual — also apply to the differences between our societies more generally. And I expect they’ll be on full display during my trip. Stay tuned for the stories.
Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who’s covering the Olympics for the ADN and FasterSkier.com. He also reported on-site from Games in 2014 in Russia, and 2010 in Vancouver. His stories and columns will appear periodically during the Olympics; for a behind-the-scenes look, follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @nat_herz.