The Chinese bubble Olympics kept reality at bay

BEIJING (AP) — They did — it seems obvious. But what exactly did they do?

China staged a logistically adept Olympics with very few mechanical issues – no small feat in the age of the pandemic. He made this possible primarily by creating what he called, in the inimitable style of the Chinese government, a “closed-loop system” – the now-renowned Olympic “bubble” designed to encircle anyone affiliated with the Olympics and, equally important, prevent them from infecting the rest of the country.

For these Games, the government made sure to bring out the nice China. Inside the loop, it was all kind – led by enthusiastic young volunteers, embodied by a cheerful big panda mascot named Bing Dwen Dwen. The serious men and women in hazmat suits were friendly, at least as far as one could tell from under the masks and goggles and full plastic. Even the relatively few police officers encountered inside the bubble were, by Chinese law enforcement standards, downright talkative.

And even.

The closed-loop bubble removed a significant part of the heart and soul of the 2022 Olympics – a global moment that, at best, is meant to spill over from both. And here’s what he also did: create practical side effects that surely did not displease the Chinese authorities.

First, a little background. For decades, the Communist Party and the country’s government have devised a multi-pronged system to keep visitors from seeing — and reporting on — what is really going on in the surprisingly multifaceted nation of China.

Since the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in particular, those who try to look behind the curtain – whether journalists, activists or sometimes just curious tourists – are often blocked, slapped or redirected to more innocuous places and pursuits.

Today, international journalists living and working in China – if they are not among those expelled – struggle to break through the official narrative and must create innovative end series to tackle the most controversial topics.

For many years, “foreign affairs offices” in various Chinese cities, ostensibly designed to make things easier for visitors, have in fact become official obstacles in many cases. Many foreigners trying to travel solo to any of the places the central government considers wayward — the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet in particular — may well be thwarted.

And the Chinese journalists? In a society where propaganda is positioned as patriotic rather than repugnant, they face perils and pressures that would be hard to imagine for anyone who grew up in a democracy.

So, in a way, the Olympic bubble was the perfect microcosm of hide-all-the-imperfections business as usual, against the backdrop of a globalized, mascot-saturated winter wonderland.

Regular international spectators were not allowed to come, which eliminated a random element. More importantly, thousands of visiting international Olympic reporters with prying eyes and exuberant story ideas were effectively barred from meeting ordinary Chinese people other than a group of carefully selected and knowledgeable pre-approved representatives.

The reason, of course, was the COVID ban. But the results are more than aligned with the goals and practices of Xi Jinping’s government.

That’s not to say the bubble was created for anything other than the COVID-19 ban. Granted, Tokyo had a system last year for its Summer Games that shared some characteristics with Beijing’s, although it was much less hardcore, reflecting the different types of governments that Japan and China have.

And as China readily points out, the bubble system worked. As of Saturday, the segregation system that has effectively turned Beijing into two cities – one sequestered, the other running quite normally – had produced just 463 positive results out of 1.85 million tests among thousands visitors entering the bubble since January 23.

“The success in isolating the event from the virus and minimizing disruption to sporting events also reflected the effectiveness and flexibility of China’s comprehensive zero COVID policies,” enthused the Global Times newspaper, which is pro -governmental even by Chinese standards. .

So those “authoritarian Olympics” that human rights groups criticized and some Western governments boycotted (even as they sent their athletes)? The bubble created to house them was, in some ways, not much different from the bubble city that Marvel character Wanda Maximoff created in last year’s popular “WandaVision” TV series.

Like the fictional Westview, Bubble Beijing certainly had things in common with the real thing, and sometimes you could glimpse the real world from the inside. But it was brilliant and well-calibrated and – unless you did some serious research to find the seams – you couldn’t really leave until the story unfolded.

Ultimately, the 2022 Winter Olympics come to the books with two dominant storylines. One is the history of the sport – a tale sprinkled with the triumphs of Eileen Gu, Nathan Chen and Su Yiming, the sadness of Mikaela Shiffrin and the mess that is Russian figure skating.

The other, however, captured inside this bubble, is the history of the host country of the Olympics. This one is a pandemic-era tale of medical and logistical triumph apparent on the surface, with a different reality floating below, sanitized for government protection and seen, inevitably, through the COVID-flavored prism of our era – as through a mask, goggles and a full plastic suit.


Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, is the AP’s former Asia-Pacific news director and covers its seventh Olympic Games. He lived in Beijing as a child in 1979-80 and as a journalist from 2001-2004. Follow him on Twitter at (

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