Q & A: The Beijing Winter Olympic Games

GWSB professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti discusses what another COVID-19 Olympics will look like, plus the political impact of the games.

Lisa Delpy Neirotti
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, pictured three years ago in Beijing, has worked every Olympics since the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Bosnia (then Yugoslavia).
February 01, 2022

George Washington University School of Business professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti, program director and associate professor of sport management, will work her 21st Olympic Games when she heads to Beijing for the Winter Olympics, which run Feb. 4-20 in China’s capital city.

As an Olympic scholar, Neirotti has worked at every Olympics since 1984. In 1992, she started an elective course in sports management at GW that took students behind the scenes at the Olympic Games, though students were unable to attend this year and last year because of the pandemic.

She answered GW Today’s questions about these Winter Olympics in China.

Q: The unprecedented 2020 Summer Olympics wrapped up just six months ago. What lessons pertaining to COVID-19 have been taken from the summer games in preparation for these Winter Olympics?

A: The major lesson was that it had to be more of a closed loop system. What happened in Tokyo was that all the foreigners came over, and we're very contained. We couldn't take public transportation and could only go to Olympic venues and back to our accommodations. But the local volunteers and the staff, that we dealt with every day, they were coming and going to their home and elsewhere and would take public transportation, so it was more of a dirty bubble. For the 2022 Winter Games, all local volunteers and staff are required to stay within the bubble for as long as their Olympic role is needed. Everyone in the bubble will be staying in designated hotels and only take the transportation provided by the Olympic organizers to and from the locations where they need to go. 

Also, in Tokyo, everybody had a different testing regime. Athletes and those who were in touch with athletes were tested every day, but media tested every three days and others had a different test schedule. In Beijing, everybody is being tested every day, so there’s no confusion on when to test and a better opportunity to catch an outbreak early. All stakeholders including the government and sport’s governing bodies, have agreed to these protocols.

Q: What happens if an athlete, or really anybody in the bubble, tests positive? What do the isolation periods look like?

A: If an athlete tests positive, they will be isolated in either a special hotel or a medical facility depending on whether they are symptomatic. Athletes in the isolation facility get daily PCR tests, temperature checks, and any other medical attention as needed. In order to leave isolation, they must have two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart and display no symptoms of COVID-19. They can then return to training and competition, though it generally takes several days to test negative after infection, and some athletes may have missed their events by then.

The organizers are trying their best to let athletes perform but have a zero-Covid policy. In Tokyo, there was some confusion regarding protocols for those who had COVID prior to the Games and those designated as close contacts, but the 2022 playbooks have addressed most all situations experienced in Tokyo.

Q: The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have joined together for a diplomatic boycott of these Beijing Games, citing human rights abuses in China. What is the impact, if any, of that?  

A: Normally, the U.S. does not send our president anyway. We send the first lady or vice president or other designee. And other than the opening ceremonies, we rarely see or hear about these dignitaries during the Games. The diplomatic boycott was the overall best solution as we learned from 1980 that an athlete boycott does not work and only hurts our athletes. Ideally the Olympic Games should be free from politics and if you ask me, government leaders should not even be invited unless part of an Olympic delegation. The focus of the Games should be on the athletes and their amazing performances. 

Q: The International Olympic Committee’s political neutrality has increasingly come under fire from human rights groups for not taking a strong stance on China. What has the IOC’s response been to these criticisms?

A The Olympics are a global media platform, and for as long as I can remember, activist groups have utilized the opportunity to heighten awareness and support their cause. I only wish the same concern and urgency could be maintained beyond the Games as one 16-day sport event cannot be expected to change the world. The concerns are far more complex than the International Olympic Committee or their sponsors could ever solve. It is a time for all of us to think about what we can all do better.

Q: Last summer’s Tokyo Games had historically low viewership in the United States. How do you think networks will address these challenges for the Beijing Olympics, especially when it has to compete with the Super Bowl runup for more than 50% of the time (the NFL’s championship game is on Feb. 13)? 

A: There is only one network, NBC, that has paid millions for the Olympic broadcasting rights. NBC did a good job of starting to promote the Winter Games earlier than normal, and the buildup to the Super Bowl could be helpful because all those tuning in for Super Bowl coverage on NBC will surely hear some Olympic Games stories and promos and hopefully watch. The success of 60 minutes on CBS is often associated with CBS Sunday NFL games that proceeded the show. 

A possible challenge in marketing the Olympic Games broadcast is that typically, Olympic sponsor advertising like the Procter & Gamble ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaigns, helps to raise awareness and interest in watching Olympic coverage. With the sensitivities around both the 2020 and 2022 Games, the number of Olympic-themed advertisements decreased, and this may have impact on viewership.

Q: What is a storyline or two we should keep an eye out for during these Olympics?

A: I’m most excited about watching my former student Elana Meyers Taylor. She’s a GW grad, and I’ve been able to watch her win bronze in 2010 and silver in both the 2014 and 2018 Olympic Games. I’m going to be there cheering her on for a gold for her fourth and perhaps final Olympic competition. I’m also interested in following the U.S. men’s hockey team. Since NHL players are not competing, I’m excited for other athletes to get an opportunity to compete and demonstrate their skills at the highest level of competition.

 

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