BEIJING: A countdown clock shows 100 days until the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, at the Olympic Park in Beijing on Tuesday. - AFP

BEIJING: Protecting the Beijing Winter Olympics from the coronavirus is the "biggest challenge", organizers said yesterday, as millions of people in China were under stay-at-home orders to contain small outbreaks 100 days before the Games. The Chinese capital will in February become the first host of a Summer and Winter Games, and last week welcomed the Olympic flame with a low-key ceremony. Case numbers remain low in China, with only three reported in Beijing yesterday and small clusters of infections elsewhere, but authorities nationwide are on edge.

The Chinese government has maintained a zero-COVID approach through rigorous measures that have seen millions told to stay at home, mass testing across at least 11 provinces and many flights and trains brought to a standstill. "The pandemic is the biggest challenge to the organization of the Winter Olympics," Zhang Jiandong, executive vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, told a press conference.

China's strict rules "can reduce the risks and impact of COVID-19", he said, adding that those in the Games' stringent bubble who fail to comply with anti-epidemic measures will face consequences, including disqualification. Zhang told reporters that "all preparations are complete" and venues finished. Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held in a "closed loop" bubble. The estimated 2,900 athletes must be fully vaccinated or face 21 days' quarantine upon arrival. They will also be tested daily.

Some of the 2008 Summer Games venues will be used during the winter spectacle, including the "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. But only people living in China will be allowed to buy tickets to attend the Games, which run from February 4 to 20. "The vaccination policy, a 'closed-loop' management system and regular testing are among the vital elements that will enable the Games to take place safely," the International Olympic Committee said yesterday.

'Biggest concern'

As an outbreak linked to a travelling domestic tour group spreads, China reported 50 new domestic cases and rolled out a series of measures to try and contain the outbreak. The northwestern Ningxia region, which has recorded 14 new cases since Saturday, closed nearly 800 schools and authorities said they would test 3.5 million people in the regional capital Yinchuan for a second time, despite the initial round of samples all coming back negative.

Lanzhou, a city 720 miles (1,200 km) to the southwest of Beijing, went into lockdown Tuesday with authorities ordering its four million residents to stay home except in emergencies. In another locked-down county of 35,000 people in China's Inner Mongolia region, authorities were working to provide medicines for stranded domestic elderly tourists with chronic conditions, state media outlet Beijing News reported.

As the capital's countdown clock showed 100 days to go, Beijing residents said they were hoping for a successful Olympics untarnished by COVID-19. "The biggest concern is the pandemic," resident Li Shuwei said. "I hope everyone can do a good job in protection and make the Beijing Winter Olympic Games a success." In addition to the pandemic, boycott calls are also casting a shadow over the Games. Human rights activists last week disrupted the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece. Campaigners have accused Beijing of repression in the northwestern Xinjiang region as well as Hong Kong and Tibet. China has consistently railed against what it calls the "politicization of sport". - AFP