Before the Olympic Games, Beijing-bound athletes must survive the COVID Games

Pressure isn’t off for Winter Games athletes, whose shot at a medal could be derailed by a positive test

(Akwasi Frimpong) Akwasi Frimpong of Salt Lake City competes in an Intercontinental Cup competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Dec. 13-15, 2021. Frimpong was seeking a return to the Olympics in February before testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s hard to say which took down more Olympic hopefuls in the past couple weeks: the ice or COVID-19.

Typically impeccable figure skater Nathan Chen got knocked off his skates a couple of times while performing his free skate at the US Championships in Nashville on Jan. 9 while Vincent Zhou stumbled through his performance (both were still selected to compete in Beijing). Away from the rink, however, positive COVID-19 tests forced no fewer than six competitors and at least one coach to drop out of the marquee event. Teen standout Alysa Liu returned a positive test hours after skating her short program.

At the US Speedskating Long Track Olympic Trials in Milwaukee, Erin Jackson’s slip in the 500 meters would have cost the world leader a chance to compete in Beijing if it weren’t for the magnanimity of teammate Brittany Bowe. But in the days before Bowe ceded her spot to Jackson, now four-time Olympian Joey Mantia lobbied successfully for banning fans and media at the Pettit Center and railed against having the competition at all, given the soaring number of coronavirus infections around the country.

“I don’t feel like it’s exactly a safe situation we’re in still,” said Mantia, who qualified to race the 1,000, the 1,500 and the men’s team pursuit in Beijing. “We’re still having increased [COVID] numbers in our population. Even though they’re small, it’s still more than you want to see with positive tests coming back. So yeah, just trying to be as safe as possible and get through this little hump.”

The Olympics are weeks away. The Paralympics will open in little more than a month. But the Pandemic Games? They’re already in full swing.

As if making an Olympic roster isn’t difficult enough, this crop of athletes will have to survive one more test before they can even think of contending for a medal at the Beijing Games, which begin Feb. 3. And it’s not something they can outsprint, outmuscle or outstrategize. They just have to hope that at no point between now and the last day of their event they contract COVID.

With case numbers reaching all-time highs in Utah and around the country, it might be their biggest Olympic challenge yet.

What happens if an Olympic athlete tests positive for COVID-19?

To say China’s approach to the coronavirus is strict is akin to saying the Olympics are a big deal — that’s not the half of it. For example, in Tianjin, the site of a recent outbreak of the omicron variant, some residents are barred from leaving their homes for any reason. Others can send one person out every other day to retrieve groceries.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) USA's Brittany Bowe reacts after racing Netherlands' Jorien Ter Mors in the Ladies' 1,000m during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Bowe ceded her spot in the 500 meters at the Beijing Olympics to teammate Erin Jackson after the world leader in the distance slipped and finished third, and out of the Games, at the Olympic trials in January 2022.

And the government’s not letting its guard down just as the country is about to be infiltrated by thousands of athletes, coaches and dignitaries from around the world. Case in point: Anyone who isn’t vaccinated will have to spend three weeks in strict quarantine with no outdoor access before coming in.

Even for fully vaccinated and boosted athletes, a positive test in the days before they leave for Beijing would prevent them from boarding their plane. A positive test while they are in transit would lead to a quarantine upon arrival in China, the release from which would require the athlete to be nonsymptomatic for three days and produce two negative tests within 48 hours.

Luge athlete Summer Britcher called the quarantine experience in China “challenging.” She traveled to the site of the Olympic races in Yangqing, China, in November for the first World Cup races of the season and was sequestered after producing what was eventually determined to be a false positive test.

“I was kind of kept in isolation, just a few training runs or sessions, kept separate from my team entirely,” said Britcher, who believed she wouldn’t be able to complete the sessions she needed to qualify for the Games.

She added she was “told I was unable to go to the gym, anything. And that experience was very challenging mentally to come back from that and try to compete again after having to process the feeling of like, ‘Ok, my Olympics are over. I have no chance.’”

In a change from what befell BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez during the Summer Games in Tokyo, anyone “in close contact” with someone on their flight who tested positive (defined as seated within two rows of the person or having direct physical contact) will not have to go into isolation. The Beijing Organizing Committee has promised that athletes will be notified within 24 hours of their contact and, as long as they test twice daily with negative results and eat alone, will still be able to compete.

Athletes who test positive during the Games, however, will be removed from the field of play.

It’s enough to make a person paranoid.

“You have to be aware,” said Chris Mazdzer, a Salt Lake City luge athlete who has qualified for his fourth Olympics. “... It would be terrible to not go to the games because of a positive test the last two weeks. So it’s something you have to think about. It definitely is challenging.”

Chris Mazdzer of Salt Lake City will represent the United States in men's luge in his fourth Olympics in Beijing this February, as long as he avoids catching COVID-19. He called trying to avoid a positive test in the leadup to the Winter Games is 'challenging.' (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

What are athletes doing to avoid catching COVID?

Hannah Soar, a Park City resident who qualified for the Olympics in moguls, trained for last week’s World Cup competition at Deer Valley in a KN-95 mask. And she wasn’t alone.

“That was pretty common to see people wearing either a medical mask or KN-95 and within skiing during COVID, I haven’t seen that until now,” Soar said. “So it just kind of shows a sense of urgency that everyone has to make sure they don’t get it.”

Many athletes said they barely leave the house anymore except to go to training sites or competitions. They don’t really hang out with anyone, not even teammates.

“The second you might go hang out at a teammate’s house, someone is in close contact or might test positive,” said Bowe, who is seeking a speedskating gold medal in the 1,000 and 1,500 in Beijing. “It’s like you can’t trust anybody, as cautious as everyone is being at this time.”

Even family is off-limits. Beijing-bound aerialist Justin Schoenfeld, a Park City resident, said he saw his mother for the first time in nearly a year this week and the closest they got was exchanging Christmas presents in a parking lot.

But even those who are vaccinated and taking precautions can contract COVID, especially with the surging omicron variant, which has been shown to be 2.7 to 3.7 times more transmissible than the delta variant.

And some do, with devastating implications.

(Akwasi Frimpong) Akwasi Frimpong of Salt Lake City competes in an Intercontinental Cup competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Dec. 13-15, 2021. Frimpong was seeking a return to the Olympics in February before testing positive for COVID-19.

Salt Lake City slider’s hopes dashed

One ill-fated encounter sent Akwasi Frimpong’s Olympic dreams into a tailspin. The Salt Lake City skeleton racer was competing on the Intercontinental Cup circuit in Europe trying to accumulate enough points to represent Ghana in his second Olympic Games. Just three races remained for him to rise from 63rd into the top 60 in the standings when he came into contact with someone in Germany who had a slight cold. That person later tested positive for COVID-19, and, on Dec. 29, so did Frimpong.

The cutoff for qualifying for the Olympics was Sunday. Frimpong realized he wouldn’t get out of quarantine in time to make up the difference, even if he didn’t have a fever and head and body aches.

“Gutted,” he said simply in an email to The Tribune.

Frimpong’s coaches Brian McDonald and Zach Lund petitioned IOC president Thomas Bach and the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation to allow Frimpong to compete. They argued that not allowing Frimpong and Nigeria’s Simidele Adeagbo — the two athletes trying to represent Africa in these Olympics — to race would deal a “crushing blow” to the development of Winter Sport athletes on that continent. But the IOC declined Frimpong’s request to be allowed to compete in the Olympics.

Frimpong, 35, is unlikely to chase Olympic qualification in 2026.

“The situation has been very hard on me, I’m devastated and feeling broken,” he wrote to The Tribune. “I have invested a lot of time, money and energy into all this. But I count my blessings for being alive, having good health and having a supportive wife and kids. At the end of the day that’s most important.”