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Life in the Beijing Olympic bubble

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The threat of COVID means China has created a quarantine bubble around the Olympic Games unlike anything seen before. So what's it like living and working inside Beijing's so-called closed loop? NPR's Brian Mann sends a reporter's notebook.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Every single morning, my day in Beijing starts the exact same way.

How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm fine. Thanks. And you?

MANN: In my hotel, a cheerful woman in full hazmat gear - I can only see her eyes - has me pull down my face mask. Like tens of thousands of people, every single athlete, coach, journalist and official at the Games, I'm throat swabbed and tested.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Negative. Have a good day.

MANN: Then my N95 mask goes back on, and I set off on a bus that passes through a quarantine gate manned by guards. The bus is limited to people inside the closed world of these Games. I ride through China's capital with my nose pressed to the glass, looking at neighborhoods, people heading to work, corner shops - all unreachable.

What we're able to see, what athletes are able to see, is really limited. And what is supposed to be kind of a festival of people meeting and coming together, it just isn't working like that at all.

Like so much of life during this pandemic, these Olympics in Beijing are a compromise. The athletes talk about this a lot.

RAGNHILD MOWINCKEL: For sure, that puts a lot of restrictions on what we can do and how we can experience this Olympics, which is, yeah, for sure, sad, but that's sad for the entire world.

MANN: Ragnhild Mowinckel is an alpine skier from Norway. She voices something you hear in Beijing, that a lot of this is a bummer, but she's glad the Winter Games happened at all.

MOWINCKEL: We still have an Olympics now, and we're still here. And we're still competing, so just try to do the best out of the situation we're in and still try to have fun.

MANN: I'd say this is kind of the spirit of these Games, making the best of a lousy situation. And the truth is, this unpleasant system has worked. There's almost no COVID being detected inside the bubble. Another thing that makes this claustrophobic life a little easier - the Olympic bubble is vast. It stretches from the city out to the rugged mountains northwest of Beijing, reached on a shiny new bullet train.

I can actually see the crown of artificial snow up on one of the peaks where the skiing competition is underway right now.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Taizicheng Railway Station.

MANN: In the mountains, I'm able to hop on a cable gondola that takes me even higher. Skiers and snowboarders glide beneath me over ribbons of snow.

The cable car passes through just these remarkably beautiful sort of canyons. You can see yellow rock and forest kind of stretching away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: From the lovely community of Courmayeur.

MANN: This part of my journey takes me closer to something that feels like a normal Olympics. It's a gorgeous winter day. There's a small crowd. Athletes are rocketing and dancing over snow.

It is amazing to see these snowboard riders in a halfpipe launching up over the lip and literally going high enough that you can see them spinning against this sky. There's a bright sun and clouds sweeping across the mountains. It's pretty spectacular.

So there are lots of times when life in this Olympic bubble feels more frustrating than joyous. But then I see these athletes moving at what looks like the edge of gravity and remember that even a diminished Winter Games can be remarkable.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.