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Team USA, headed to the Beijing Olympics, faces strict pandemic measures


There's a lot of uncertainty that surrounds the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin in just under a month. Team USA athletes who are headed to China's capital are facing strict measures to try and limit the spread of COVID-19.

Now on the line with us is USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. She's covered every Olympics since the Games in Los Angeles in 1984. Christine, what are U.S. athletes being told to do, or at least to try to keep from catching COVID?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: A, this is going to be very interesting because, of course, omicron is hitting basically right as the Olympic Games are going to be beginning 5 1/2 weeks from now. And the athletes are training. This is a key time for all of them.

So No. 1 for Beijing and the Olympics - that vaccinations are mandatory or you have to serve a 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing, which means vaccines are mandatory. There's no athlete or journalist or official or coach who'd want to go through that. That you have to have two negative tests to get into China for the Olympic Games. And there's daily testing once you're there for everybody, all of us - media, everyone.

And then if you do test positive, to get out of quarantine, you have to have two negative tests. There'll also be an International Olympic Committee panel of experts, medical experts, reviewing cases so that athletes do not spend too much time in quarantine. But clearly, with omicron here, A, you know, there are so many questions.

MARTÍNEZ: We've seen a lot change with the pandemic even day to day. So how do the rules for Beijing compare to the rules of the Summer Games in Tokyo?

BRENNAN: It's a great point because Tokyo is instructive for Beijing - what happened a few months ago with Tokyo. Where Tokyo there were no fans allowed at all, with Beijing, with the China Olympics, there will be Chinese fans. So citizens of China, foreign nationals who live there will be allowed to attend. Visually, as you're watching the Games, it will look very different. The arenas will be full. There will be people standing on the mountain cheering on the skiers. And that's going to be a very different look, an aesthetic that will be pleasing, I think, to many Olympic fans.

And then, of course, Tokyo did not have vaccines as mandatory just because it was still too early for many countries to have the vaccine. So Beijing will be bubblized in a huge way, including flights. Even going in, you have to go through a certain hub to get in a flight that is basically a bubblized flight to get into Beijing. Tokyo had nothing like that.

MARTÍNEZ: And for the people that will get to go watch the Games in person, they'll also have some special rules to follow.

BRENNAN: That's correct. And this is interesting because there's a playbook that - with all the rules and regulations. And one of the things that the Beijing organizers are hoping for is no shouting or cheering or singing. They want everyone to just clap. Now, masks - they will be mandatory. So, of course, that is - goes without saying. But no cheering, no shouting, especially athletes cheering on other athletes - good luck with that. But the idea, of course, is to minimize this - the transmission of the virus.

MARTÍNEZ: I'll believe it when I don't hear it, Christine. Just human nature to cheer, but we'll see. Now, the Olympics start on February 4, and U.S. skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin just tested positive. She still has time before the Olympics, but, I mean, that can't be great news for the rest of the team.

BRENNAN: No. She's one of the biggest names going into these Olympic Games, two-time gold medalist already from previous Olympics. This is terrible timing for her because every athlete wants to keep training, competing. To take a week or so off to quarantine is terrible for anyone, but certainly for an athlete going for the biggest moment of their lives. I think it's really a warning, and it shows, A, how difficult this is going to be for all these athletes with so much uncertainty as the Games approach.

MARTÍNEZ: USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. Christine, thanks.

BRENNAN: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.