The Olympic motto may be “faster, higher, stronger — together,” but athletes stuck in quarantine at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games say it’s more like freezing, hungry and stressed — in isolation.
Several countries have complained about the “unreasonable” accommodations of their athletes, particularly those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and been sent to isolation facilities — aka quarantine hotels — where they must remain until they test negative with two consecutive PCR tests.
There’s a lack of transparency, too, according to the Associated Press, with only some COVID-19-positive athletes forced into quarantine hotels where their teams don’t have access, while other athletes in similar situations are allowed to isolate within the Olympic Village.
The Finland men’s ice hockey team coach said that Beijing was not respecting player Marko Anttila’s human rights on Sunday, for example, complaining that he was “not getting food” and was under immense stress, Reuters reported. And the head of Germany’s Olympic team said the hotel conditions for German skier Eric Frenzel were “unacceptable,” describing a lack of hygiene, insufficient Wi-Fi and irregular food deliveries.
Some athletes have even shared first-person horror stories of their quarantine experiences on their social media feeds. Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans posted a tearful video on her Instagram account sharing how she’s been bounced to multiple isolation facilities after she thought she had been in close contact with someone with COVID. “We are not even sure I will ever be allowed to return to the [Olympic] village,” she sobbed, adding: “I’m not sure I can handle 14 more days and the Olympic competition while being in this isolation.”
On Feb. 3, Russian biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova shared a picture of what she said was being served as “breakfast, lunch and dinner for five days already” on Instagram: plain pasta, charred meat on a bone, an orangish sauce and no vegetables. Her account is now private, but the photo was trending at the top of Reddit’s home page on Monday morning.
Some readers noted it reminded them of the cheese sandwich photo that went viral during the epic Fyre Festival fail of 2017. (In case you’ve forgotten, that was the Ja Rule-backed festival flop in the Bahamas where hundreds of ticket holders expecting a luxury experience on a private island arrived to find sodden FEMA tents on a construction site that was serving what looked like a Kraft single slapped on two pieces of white toast.)
“My stomach hurts, I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes. I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired,” Vasnetsova wrote in her post. “I’ve lost a lot of weight and my bones are sticking out. I can’t eat anything else, I don’t know anything about my corona tests.”
Meanwhile, Polish speedskater Natalia Maliszewska wrote she has “cried until I have no more tears.” She described the heartbreaking experience of being barred from last Saturday’s qualifying race for short tack speedskating (her strongest event) after testing positive for COVID on Jan. 30. But then she was unexpectedly released from quarantine the night before the race, only to be sent back into isolation after testing positive for COVID just hours before the race on Saturday. She was then released on Sunday after testing negative.
“I don’t believe in anything anymore. In no tests. No games. It’s a big joke for me,” she wrote on Twitter in Polish, which was translated into English by Polish radio journalist named Mateusz Ligęza.
Outside of quarantine, the German team has also complained that there is no hot food for the downhill skiers. And the Swedish cross-country ski team has asked to start their races earlier in the day, because it’s been so dangerously cold at 4 p.m. (local time) when their events are scheduled.
International Olympic Committee’s sports director Kit McConnell met with reporters on Monday. He said that the IOC is taking steps to address “individual circumstances which are still challenging,” and that the IOC has been speaking with athletes who are unhappy with their quarantine conditions. McConnell also noted that the Beijing Olympic organizing committee has the “responsibility for dialogue with the hotels” where the athletes and other Games’ participants are staying — not the IOC. The vice president of Beijing’s organizing committee responded that, “We are in a process of addressing these problems.”
To be fair, putting on an international event of this magnitude is a logistical challenge in the best of times — and the COVID-19 pandemic, which is approaching its two-year anniversary, is certainly not the most ideal situation to host an Olympic Games. Indeed, Olympic athletes put under quarantine in Tokyo for the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics last year also complained about their living conditions.
Dutch Olympic skateboarder Candy Jacobs said she endured “inhuman” conditions while quarantined in a Tokyo room with no fresh air for a week, as her window wouldn’t open. She protested by refusing to move for several hours, she explained in a now-deleted Instagram post, until Olympic officials agreed to let her stand at an open window — while supervised — for 15 minutes. “Having that first breath of outside air was the saddest and best moment in my life,” she said.
And British speedwalker Tom Bosworth described the food being given to Olympic athletes in Tokyo as “cold slop,” and said the accommodations were prison-like. “Any chance, in the week of our race, we could get some food? Like meals? Not cold slop, steamed onions or partly cooked pasta?” he asked in now-deleted tweets. “This is the ‘pinnacle of sport.’ Sapporo feels like a prison.”
The “prison-like” comment was echoed by Germany’s independent elite athletes grouping Athleten Deutschland at the time. It complained to the IOC: “It … appears grotesque that athletes who test positive have to spend their quarantine in prison-like conditions, while IOC members stay in expensive luxury hotels and are provided with high daily allowances.”
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And some host countries struggled to accommodate Olympic athletes and press even before the pandemic. Take the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Russia reportedly spent a record $51 billion hosting the games, yet athletes and journalists shared images of unfinished hotels (some without lobbies or floors), broken toilets and toxic water pouring from the faucets. There were also complaints in Sochi of no internet or hot water, as well as a shower with live wires hanging from the ceiling. The gripes went viral, leading the hashtag #sochiproblems to trend on Twitter at the time.
The 2014 Canadian Olympic hockey team also tweeted pictures of their cramped sleeping accommodations, with a single room featuring three beds squeezed together just a foot apart. Other snaps of the Sochi athlete accommodations had somewhat creepy pieces of children’s artwork on the wall.
Beijing Olympic organizers said that as of Monday, 387 people inside the Olympic bubble (including athletes, team officials and news media) have tested positive for COVID-19.
The good news is that the IOC is listening to some athletes’ complaints. Russian biathlon team spokesperson Sergei Averyanov posted a picture of what he said was an improved meal delivered to Vasnetsova’s room, which included salmon, cucumbers, sausages and yogurt, the Associated Press reported. What’s more, a stationary bike will be delivered to her room soon so that she can stay active, he added.