For sports reporters, being sent to cover an Olympic Games has always been seen as a privilege, a career highlight, a chance to bathe in the reflected glory of the world’s top athletes while enjoying a couple of weeks in the sun or on the slopes, all expenses paid.
Now, not so much. Reporters assigned to next month’s Beijing Winter Olympics are being warned to leave their cellphones at home and pack “burner phones” and “clean” laptops to prevent Chinese spies hacking into their data. They have been sent a 36-page guide on how to navigate China’s ultra-strict COVID regulations just to get into the country, including a health-monitoring app and multiple PCR tests. Once inside the Olympic bubble, they could be served food by robots, prepared by robots, in order to limit unnecessary human contact. And if, after all that, they do test positive for the rampant Omicron variant, then it will all have been in vain; their Olympics will be over.
Not surprisingly, some editors are deciding it’s just not worth it and are keeping their staffs at home, including executives at ESPN, the U.S. cable sports giant that announced Thursday that the four reporters it had been due to send to China would be staying home and covering the Games from the U.S.
As a non-rights holder, ESPN was never going to be able to broadcast any actual sports coverage from Beijing. Its news reporters would normally be flitting between venues, catching up with American stars to generate stories off the field of play and filming video stand-ups before key venues. As part of their pandemic plan, however, Beijing Olympic organizers are treating all three Olympic clusters—in central Beijing and two mountain zones outside the capital—as Olympic venues in their own right, further limiting the activities of non-rights holders.
ESPN’s executive editor, Norby Williamson, displayed his frustration at those restrictions in a statement confirming the coverage plans. “With the pandemic continuing to be a global threat, and with the COVID-related on-site restrictions in place for the Olympics that would make coverage very challenging, we felt that keeping our people home was the best decision for us,” he said.
But even NBCUniversal, which has paid billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast successive Olympics, is cutting back on its team in China. Its anchors and announcers will cover the Games from the NBC sports hub in Stamford, Connecticut. They will be following the example of the BBC, which successfully covered last year’s Summer Olympics from a “greenscreen” studio in the suburbs of Manchester designed to fool viewers into thinking they were watching a live feed from downtown Tokyo.
With the U.S. leading a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Games—which means Western political leaders snubbing the opening and closing ceremonies in the Bird's Nest stadium—NBC has been stung by suggestions from human rights groups that its coverage could legitimize Chinese repression of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. Molly Solomon, NBC’s Olympic production chief, told reporters this week that athletes would “remain the centerpiece of our coverage” but the “geopolitical context” would not be ignored.
That political pressure will remain, at least until American skiers, skaters, snowboarders, and hockey stars start showing off their medals. A bipartisan group led by Rep. Tom Malinowski, the New Jersey Democrat, called on Friday for the International Olympic Committee to explicitly guarantee athletes’ right to free speech in Beijing after a Chinese official warned that competitors who spoke about against human rights abuses could be sent home.
Some journalists have not even been allowed to go at all. Canadian reporter Devin Heroux tested positive for coronavirus late last year and has been told he cannot now cover the event. “Unfortunately my plans to cover the Olympics from Beijing have been derailed,” the CBC reporter wrote.
Reporters who are going admit they will not be allowed to report freely. “It’s naive to think the pandemic hasn’t played right into China’s hands,” Christine Brennan, a USA Today columnist told the Washington Post. “They would have wanted to control us, anyway. This just gives them another excuse. China will be China.”
Owen Slot, chief sportswriter at The Times of London, described his shock when he and other reporters assigned to the Beijing Games were invited to a security briefing at the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper in December: "Don’t use your phones over there, we were informed. Take a burner phone. Take a clean laptop. And even then, if do you phone home, your friendly hosts may be straight into your wife’s data instead."
Fortunately, Slot wrote earlier this month, he already has a burner phone at home on which he can call home to his family. “Yet we are just scratching at the surface here. How did we get to a point where we granted hosting rights to a nation where you can’t use your phone?”
He added: “The truth is that we are entering the most extraordinarily appalling year for our global sporting feasts. We start 2022 with the Olympics in Beijing and finish it with the World Cup in Qatar. It is a double whammy of shame. We will hold our noses, award the medals and leave behind us the empty rhetoric of disapproval.”