ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — After months of headlines about coronavirus tests, travel logistics and geopolitics, Beijing’s Olympic cross-country skiing venue, on the eve of its first competition Saturday, has emphatically changed the subject.
To the winds of Zhangjiakou.
Icy gusts billowed athletes’ training bibs, filled the resort town’s immaculately groomed ski tracks with dry, squeaky powder and generally consumed everyone’s attention Friday — from the team members who shielded their faces with buffs and layers of tape to the course workers who used leaf blowers in an effort to restore a section of the course to presentable shape.
“This makes Fairbanks seem nice,” a slightly defeated sounding Luke Jager, the Alaska-born American sprint racer, said in a message after braving Zhangjiakou’s trails Friday, amid 25 mph gusts and a high of 5 degrees. “It’s kind of brutal though: All the spots on the sprint course where you want to carry speed into the climb, you just get blasted with wind and come to a halt.”
Athletes’ early impressions of the Beijing Winter Olympics have centered on China’s intense coronavirus mitigation measures, from daily testing to volunteers wrapped in layers of personal protective equipment.
But finally, after dodging the hyper-contagious omicron variant in the lead-up to the Games, athletes and coaches are finally able to narrow their focus on competitions — thanks in part to those protective measures.
That’s the thing about the Beijing Olympic bubble: Once you’re inside it, it’s a much more comfortable place for an elite athlete to be during a pandemic than outside.
“I would say China’s policy on COVID matches our team policy on COVID,” said Matt Whitcomb, one of the U.S. Ski Team coaches. “Even though athletes made the team, we weren’t sure they were actually going to make it to the Olympics.”
Positive tests sidelined other contenders ranging from Norwegian cross-country skiing stars to star U.S. bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor to Alaska-based figure skater Keegan Messing.
But the entire U.S. nordic skiing squad has made it to Zhangjiakou, in the mountains some 100 miles northwest of Beijing, unscathed so far.
And while athletes and coaches said they’re still being vigilant, each day without news of many positives inside the Olympic bubble lends to the sense of security.
“Since we’ve all gotten here and settled in, we’re like, ‘All right, we made it.’ We’re still testing negative. We haven’t heard of people testing positive. So I think we’re feeling pretty good about it — and not thinking about it quite so much,” said Gus Schumacher, another Alaskan competing at the Games. “I think this is probably the COVID-safest I’ve been in a long time.”
That’s allowed athletes to think, and talk, about other things — namely the conditions on Zhangjiakou’s courses in advance of the Olympics’ first cross-country ski races.
Women will race 15 kilometers Saturday afternoon in the pursuit format, with the first half in classical technique and the second half skating. Men race the same format Sunday, skiing 30 kilometers.
Athletes spent Friday testing skis, practicing the changeover in gear — which happens while the clock is running — and fine-tuning both their bodies and cold-weather coping techniques.
“Trying to figure out how to keep our faces warm,” Jager said.
Schumacher skied with patriotic red and blue patches of tape on his cheeks, plus a striped red and white neck warmer. Other athletes trained wearing masks designed to shield their lungs from the cold air. Norwegian superstar Therese Johaug at one point skied through the stadium area with her neck warmer pulled over her mouth.
“Everybody has really fine-tuned what long underwear tops they’re going to need to wear, heated socks, heated vests for training,” Whitcomb said. “What puts the cold into an extreme sort of level is just the incessant wind — and it is really bitter. There’s one or two spots on the course where you can find a little respite from the wind, and it feels like the tropics when you step into it.”
Beyond devising ways to keep their bodies warm, athletes were also scheming with coaches about the fastest way to navigate Zhangjiakou’s wide, challenging trails, given the challenge of the windblown snow filling the tracks.
Skiing outside the tracks appears to be faster. But doing so invites the potential for disqualification, as athletes are required to follow strict rules about cornering when using the classic technique, Whitcomb said.
Aside from the cold, though, athletes and coaches said they’ve had a warm welcome to China. The food is good, the logistics are uncomplicated and the Chinese volunteers have been warm.
“They’re doing an amazing job,” Jager said. “Everyone’s super friendly, and everything is pretty seamless.”
The coronavirus prevention measures also make sense, Schumacher said, given China’s low rates of illness and the much higher rates in countries that athletes, coaches and journalists are traveling from.
“It honestly seems like China’s probably one of the few places that can really pull this off well, right now,” he said.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.