The group pushing for another Winter Games in Utah won’t get a chance to see first-hand how an Olympics is run during a pandemic after all.
The International Olympic Committee told The Salt Lake Tribune in an email Friday that it has canceled its Observer Program for the 2022 Games, “to allow the teams on the ground in Beijing to focus on delivering the Games in the context of the current global pandemic.”
An unexpectedly high number of COVID-19 cases has been linked to flights into Beijing. As of Wednesday morning, 50 people within the Olympic bubble had tested positive for the virus since it opened to foreigners Jan. 4, according to Olympic organizers. Another 79 tested positive at the airport during that period, including on Monday the first athlete or team official. In the past three days, about 3% of all Olympic personnel arriving in Beijing have tested positive for COVID-19.
A plane full of Team USA athletes and coaches was expected to arrive Friday in Beijing.
The IOC’s decision came within days of the departure for China of three members of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games. The committee is lobbying to host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games and its delegates planned to participate in the Observer Program. The group included president and CEO Fraser Bullock as well as committee chair and four-time Olympic speed skater Catherine Raney-Norman and Games advisor Darren Hughes.
“Of course I’m disappointed, because it was the opportunity to reconnect with so many friends in the Olympic and Paralympic movements and watch athletes at their very best,” said Bullock, who said he was alerted Monday of the Observer Program’s cancellation. “However, I totally understand the extreme caution that the Beijing Games organizers are taking and support them 100%.”
Earlier this month, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics in protest of human rights violations by China. At the time, Bullock said that decision wouldn’t affect his group because its mission was educational, not political.
“Our focus is behind the scenes,” he said, “understanding what they’re doing in terms of hosting Games, new ideas that we can bring into our Games and talking with people about our future hosting opportunity.”
The Olympic Observer Program is, according to Olympics.com, “one of the key components of the knowledge transfer process, providing a unique opportunity to live, learn and observe real Games operations.” Participants generally include delegations from future Olympic hosts, such as L.A. 2028, as well as applicant cities. Bullock said he expected all the cities interested in hosting the 2030 Games to have representatives there. That would likely include Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, British Columbia; the Barcelona-Pyrenees region and Ukraine.
The groups would have observed such aspects as the Opening Ceremonies, ticketing, transportation, medical facilities and media operations. In addition, the SLC-Utah group planned to meet informally with IOC officials to learn more about the selection process and ways it could improve its bid.
The IOC said in its email that “All learnings from the Games will be incorporated into the Beijing 2022 Debrief in Milano-Cortina later this year, which will provide an opportunity for [national organizing committees] and potential future Olympic hosts to discover topics such as vision and culture; legacy and funding; operating a mountain cluster; impact and reach; and evolutions and innovations.”
This is the second time in-face meetings between the SLC-UT group and IOC members have been scuttled. A November meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, was also canceled because of the coronavirus. Bullock said he expects that meeting will be rescheduled.
At that time, he said, “We can learn from them everything that happened in Beijing that we should be aware of.”
Bullock said he also expects to be on site in Paris to observe the 2024 Summer Games.
In addition to those who tested positive, people who were within two rows of an infected person on an airplane bound for Beijing are considered “close contact” and may also be required to quarantine. That could have been an issue for the SLC-Utah delegates. They hoped to return to Salt Lake City by Feb. 8, in time to participate in 20th anniversary celebrations of the 2002 Olympics.