Pleasant or difficult? Olympic Village experiences at Beijing Games vary by athlete

Gondolas glide past the Olympic Village in Beijing.
Gondolas glide past the Olympic Village in the Yanqing district of Beijing. Chinese state-run media have promoted positive stories about the village experience, but what is it really like for the athletes?
(Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press)

Lime-green buses, temporary buildings and volunteers braced against zero-degree wind whipping off the Xiaohaituo Mountain Area are scattered around the desolate parking lot that served as an important waystation for new arrivals at the Winter Olympics.

On one side of the sprawling lot, cordoned off by waist-high barriers and assisted by workers in white hazmat suits, athletes changed buses from Beijing Capital International Airport for the final leg of their journey into the mountains.

When the last athlete boarded the bus at the Banquan Service Area, workers methodically sprayed the entire lot with disinfectant. Even sections far from the bus were doused. Then the workers sprayed each other.


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For anyone who saw the scene from a bus window, it would be clear that these Games would be unlike anything they had seen.

Almost 3,000 athletes have been spread between villages in three clusters, part of the bubble that severed the 17-day event from the rest of society to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The athlete experience has featured the good times and perks expected at every Games — and presented significant challenges amid strict precautions mirroring China’s zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic.

“It was hard,” said Jamie Anderson, the three-time Olympian snowboarder who is part of the U.S. team of more than 220 athletes. “We’ve been here for so long. I feel that the whole crew was over it, like just barely hanging on by a freaking strand of hair. Tired of the food. Homesick. Tired of the pressure. A little bit tapped out. I’m excited to go home.”

Athletes eat in the Olympic Village in Beijing.
Diners are separated by plastic dividers in the Olympic Village cafeteria in Beijing.
(Wang Zhao / Associated Press)

Freestyle skier David Wise, another three-time Olympian who was one of the final arrivals, called the village his favorite of the ones he’s been in.

“It is a very closed-loop bubble that we are living in, but that is something we’ve been dealing with all season long,” Wise said. “If anything, it feels like we have more freedom because the bubble we are in is on such a massive scale.”


Some of the highlights to passing time in the village include a popular first-person-shooter virtual reality game that has left players in hysterics as they stumble around the game room with goggles on, adjustable beds with so-called zero-G mode that adjusts the angle, and high-tech exhibits exploring traditional Chinese medicine.

“We’re so hooked up here,” U.S. freestyle skier and first-time Olympian Colby Stevenson said. “It’s just been a crazy experience. I’ve never been to China before, so it definitely exceeded my expectation.”

The precautions, however, permeate every aspect of daily life as much as the always-present workers in hazmat suits. Like everyone else in the bubble, athletes must be tested daily for the coronavirus, wear high-quality masks when they leave their rooms, attempt to practice physical distancing, only travel between a limited list of approved destinations, track their health though a smartphone app and, when in their cafeteria, use plastic gloves and sit at tables with dividers between each space.

A person in a hazmat suit uses a wand to scan a member of the Norway delegation at the 2022 Olympics.
A member of the Norway delegation goes through security after arriving at the Olympic Village in Beijing.
(Anthony Wallace / Associated Press)

Those rules also apply to high-profile athletes like U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin and her boyfriend, star Norwegian skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. Both are staying in the village at the base of the Yanqing National Alpine Centre, but have to keep their distance other than sharing divider-separated meals.

“I feel like they’ve thought of everything from a sanitation and disinfection standpoint,” said Shiffrin, the three-time Olympian who had previously steered away from athletes’ villages because of the potential for illness to spread. “I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s been a pleasant introduction to village living.”


Most of the athletes are accustomed to limits after almost two years of pandemic-related protocols.

“Everybody says, ‘Yeah, now you can spend so much time together,’ and it’s nice to have her, but it’s more challenging,” Kilde said. “With COVID and restrictions, you have to be really careful. … It’s a tease kind of, if you know what I mean. You see her, but you can’t really touch her, can’t really be with her that much. But it’s really nice to have her here.”

No alcohol could be bought in the village, forcing athletes to navigate the cumbersome transportation system to buy it at bubble hotels and bring it back.

For some it wasn’t an issue. U.S. downhiller Bryce Bennett joked that after teammate Ryan Cochran-Siegle won a silver medal in the super-G, they would probably read and turn in early to celebrate.

Some South Korean speedskaters complained about the food in their cafeteria at the Beijing village and turned to eating boxed meals provided by their country’s Olympic committee, as it has done at past Games. The issue made its way to the daily news conference held by organizers and the International Olympic Committee.

In a transcript, the original question about the South Korean concerns had been rephrased to asking about the complexity of creating a menu for a diverse group of athletes.


Qianfan Shen, director-general of the village planning and operation department, responded that organizers “didn’t fully understand the complexity of the work” and “sometimes we joke amongst ourselves that [athletes] eat with calculators in their hands” because of nutritional requirements unique to their sport and training regime.

He pointed out that during a recent lunch hour athletes consumed 80 roast ducks “and after athletes tasted the roast duck, they have been posting videos and photos on social media.”

The remark underscored local sensitivity to how athletes discuss their accommodations. On recent nights, two Chinese newscasts featured lengthy segments about positive social media responses to the villages by athletes.

When U.S. luger Summer Britcher posted a TikTok video praising the beds in the villages compared to those in Tokyo at the Summer Olympics, the state-run Xinhua News Agency described the video as having gone viral.

People hold up their phones near a wall displaying the Olympic rings.
People take a selfie at a restaurant in the Olympic Village.
(Wang Zhao / Associated Press)

Not all of the responses have been glowing. Slovakia’s chef de mission, Roman Bucek, described “big problems” at three villages that included “a problem with a bath, with cloths, with sewage.”


The conditions at isolation facilities for people inside the bubble who test positive for the coronavirus have been the biggest flashpoint in the athlete experience, heightened by the reality that the virus could knock someone out of an event they’ve trained four years to compete in.

Several countries — Belgium, Germany and the Russian Olympic Committee among them — expressed concerns about the facilities where their athletes were isolated. Chun Huang, deputy director-general for the pandemic response at the Games, acknowledged “we cannot be complacent and continue to try and make improvements” to isolation conditions.

The exact number of athletes who have tested positive isn’t known, but organizers have reported cases from 184 athletes and team officials.

In one example, Valeriia Vasnetcova, a biathlete who had been scheduled to compete for the ROC, posted a photo on Instagram of a meager meal in isolation along with a heartfelt plea.

“My stomach hurts, I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes,” she wrote. “I want this to end.”

The account has since been turned private.