WATCH: What to expect from the Beijing Olympics

As the Winter Games convene in Beijing, there are no audiences, tourists or locals coming to support the greatest skiers, curlers, snowboarders and ice sport champions from around the world. Two years into a pandemic that has killed millions, athletes, staffers, reporters and Olympic organizers are facing unprecedented public health hurdles in pulling off a global event, while also dealing with surveillance and human rights concerns about the host country.

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The omicron variant has disrupted what for many athletes may be the biggest moment in their professional lives, said Rachel Bachman, a senior sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “Every day of the Olympics, every hour at the Olympics is the most important hour in someone’s life. And that’s a pretty compelling thing to experience on an everyday basis,” she said.

Wall Street Journal Reporter Rachel Bachman shared what she’s been watching in the runup to the Olympics, as well as what she expects from the Games, in a conversation with The PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis. Watch the conversation in the player above.

Even before they reached Beijing, COVID changed the Olympic trajectory for many athletes. “Some cases knocked athletes out of the games entirely. And in other cases, athletes had to take repeated tests to illustrate that they were COVID free and show that evidence to Chinese organizers in order to be allowed in the country.” Most athletes who hoped to be at these Olympics have arrived safely, but the stress of whether they can stay is ongoing, Bachman said. As part of China’s “Zero Covid” approach, everyone participating in the Games must stay in a “closed loop” – once you’ve arrived and passed initial testing, there’s no leaving or interacting with people outside of it.

Surveillance by the Chinese government also poses privacy concerns for everyone involved in the games. “Team USA, for instance, has recommended to its athletes to not bring their cell phones, so they’ve recommended using disposable or burner phones,” Bachman said. Media organizations are taking similar precautions in a dramatic shift from traditional press corps coverage. As a veteran Olympics reporter, Bachman said she had “never been to an Olympics where, you know, Olympic governing bodies recommended against using personal technology in the host country.”

Despite the hurdles , organizers, athletes, reporters and staffers are pushing ahead to focus on their ultimate priority: competition.

“The nice thing about the Olympics is even as controversial as these particular games are, at a certain point, they really are about the athletes,” Bachman said.

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