China mandates 3-day Olympic torch relay amid virus concerns
BEIJING (AP) — China is limiting the torch relay for the Winter Olympic Games to just three days amid coronavirus worries, organizers said Friday.
The flame will be displayed only in enclosed venues that are deemed “safe and controllable,” according to officials speaking at a news conference.
No public transit routes would be disturbed and normal life would continue for the 20 million residents of the capital, where a handful of new COVID-19 cases have been recorded over recent days.
Beijing’s Deputy Sports Director Yang Haibin said safety was the “top priority,” with the pandemic, venue preparations and the possibility of forest fires in Beijing’s cold, dry climate all factored in.
The relay will run Feb. 2-4, taking in the three competition areas of downtown Beijing, the suburb of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou in the neighboring province of Hebei.
The Games have already been impacted on a scale similar to that experienced by Tokyo during last year’s Summer Olympics.
China says only selected spectators will be allowed to attend the events, and Olympic athletes, officials, staff and journalists are required to stay within a bubble that keeps them from contact with the general public.
The opening of the Games comes just days after the start of the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s biggest annual celebration when millions traditionally travel to their hometowns for family reunions. For the second year, the government has advised those living away from home to stay put, and train and plane travel has been curtailed.
Participants in the torch rally will undergo health screens and be carefully monitored, starting from two weeks before the event begins, said Xu Zhijun, deputy head of the organizing committee.
Beijing reported its first local omicron infection on Jan. 15, and 11 cases had been confirmed in the capital as of Thursday afternoon, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Outside of Beijing, several million people remain under lockdown as part of China’s “zero-tolerance” approach to dealing with the pandemic that has been credited with preventing outbreaks on the scale of the U.S. and other countries.
Numbers of new cases have dropped substantially in recent days amid strict adherence to masking, travel restrictions and school closures, along with a vaccination rate that now tops 85%. Some medical experts worry a lack of exposure to the virus could harm the Chinese population’s ability to deal with future waves of infection.
The scaled-down torch relay is a far cry from 2008, when Beijing sent the Olympic icon on a global journey ahead of its hosting of that year’s Summer Games. The relay drew protesters against China’s human rights violations and policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere, leading to violent confrontations and the cancellation of some overseas stages.
The Winter Games have been beset by similar political controversies, alongside medical considerations.
Six weeks ago, the U.S., UK and several allies said they would not send dignitaries to attend the Games as a protest against human rights abuses by the Communist Party regime.
Athletes have been threatened by the organizing committee with “certain punishments” for saying or doing anything that would offend their Chinese hosts, while several delegations urged anyone headed to Beijing to take “burner” phones instead of their personal devices because of concerns their personal information could be compromised.
The National Hockey League cited uncertainty caused by the pandemic to hold back all of its players from the Olympic tournament.
And earlier this week, U.S. broadcaster NBC said it won’t be sending announcing teams to China, citing the same virus concerns raised when the network pulled most of its broadcasters from the Tokyo Games.
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