— Published 20 January 2022

At the Beijing 2022 Games, the tests will be a lottery

With two weeks and a few handfuls of hours to go before the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Games, the IOC continues to dip into the superlative box. On Wednesday 19 January, the Olympic body organised a press briefing in virtual mode from the Chinese capital, dedicated to media operations.

Unsurprisingly, the two speakers once again praised the quality of the preparations for the event by the Chinese organisers. “I must say that it’s probably the best we have ever seen, Executive Director of OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Services). “The best integrated broadcast (IBC) and print (MPC) media centre in history,” suggested Lucia Montanarella, the deputy director of media operations.

Restrictions on access to certain websites, such as Google, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Not a problem, said Lucia Montanarella when asked by a British journalist. On the official websites, access to the Internet will be via the Olympic network,” she explained. I was able to check it myself: it does not block any site or platform. In the rooms of the official hotels, on the other hand, you will have to be equipped with a special SIM card, sold by the organising committee, to benefit from the same access.

So everything is running smoothly. At least on the IOC side. Elsewhere, the optimism is much more nuanced. Sometimes it even gives way to growing concern.

In Canada, in particular, a report by Radio Canada journalist Martin Leclerc caused a stir in the Olympic world. He cast serious doubt on the credibility of the anti-COVID-19 tests carried out on foreign accredited athletes on their arrival in Beijing for the Winter Games. The tests are said to be so sensitive that their results sometimes turn out to be falsely positive, leading to a forced stay in isolation for the unfortunate visitors.

The only problem is that the two compulsory tests imposed by the Chinese authorities before travelling to Beijing, 96 and 72 hours before departure, have no value in the eyes of the Chinese once they arrive. They are for travelling, nothing more. Once there, only the Chinese-style screening counts to enter the bubble.

Radio Canada reports the case of two of its journalists who tested positive at Beijing airport, even though they had undergone five successive negative tests before boarding the plane, the last less than 72 hours before their departure from Montreal.

After the revelation of their positive tests, they were taken to a former Beijing hotel, now an isolation centre, described as “rather gloomy”. The centre in question has since been closed under pressure from the IOC.

According to the CEO of a specialised laboratory, quoted by the Canadian Press, the tests carried out in China are like a lottery. “Their sensitivity is such that the test becomes susceptible to false positives, he explains. It becomes a kind of lottery. You’ll test positive even if you pick up debris from a virus that’s dead.”

In other words, anyone who has fallen victim to the virus in recent weeks would have a significant chance of testing positive in China, even after several negative tests in their home country. Such a prospect can be frightening for many people, especially among athletes.

In Canada, more than half the bobsleigh team was affected by COVID-19 late last year. Several of the world’s top female skiers, including the American Mikaela Shiffrin, were also forced to withdraw from certain stages of the Alpine Skiing World Cup after contracting the virus.

Faced with the risk of false positives, particularly among the delegations, the IOC is reassuring. The Olympic body explains that cases will be studied individually by an independent panel of scientific experts. But the analysis promises to be complex and sometimes lengthy. Above all, it will not prevent a passage through isolation.