The American Olympians face an uncertain path to Beijing

DENVER (AP) – Making an Olympic team is hard enough. This winter, those who earn their places on the American team may find that even more work is needed to get to Beijing.

Among the slow drip of information that left China before the February Olympics was news that, with virtually no flights operating between North America and China, the Olympics might have to reach Beijing via a set of connection flights not yet determined that could more than double your travel time.

As things stand this month, most of the approximately 250 athletes who make up the U.S. team will have to take a charter that connects them to scheduled flights to Beijing from four cities, none of them in North America. North.

Uncertainty has turned what is already a logistical challenge: bringing all these Olympians and their thousands of pounds of equipment to China, into something even more complex. And it has turned what is already an event full of unprecedented challenges: less freedom of movement, a vaccine warrant, and the ability to compete in a country that is willing to restrict negative coverage, including widely documented human rights abuses, in something even. more difficult.

“We’re very used to being flexible with our planning and schedule,” American skier Mikaela Shiffrin said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It simply came to our notice then. So it’s definitely another added source of stress. “

Tough travel is nothing new for Olympic athletes, and their schedules have only become more confusing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that reorganized competition schedules and, with New Zealand mostly closed, made even harder to find snow during the low season.

The sponsor of the American Olympic team, Delta Airlines, could still arrange charter flights directly from the United States to Beijing, but with 11 weeks to go before the Games begin, everything is up for grabs.

As of this week, approved flights to Beijing are expected to depart from Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Paris. The provisional plan of the American ski and snowboard team is to rent flights from Los Angeles to one of the points in Asia and then switch to the Olympic charters. Complicating further the problem is that some of these athletes are in Europe for the World Cup season. Without normal trading options available, the task of moving them is more difficult.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is ultimately responsible for bringing the ski team and the rest of the American teams, outside of hockey, to Beijing. With an additional connection through Asia or a stop in Europe, travel times could be around twice what would normally be a 12-hour trip from the west coast of the US to Beijing.

Rick Adams, the head of sports performance at USOPC, said everyone was aware that the rapid change after the Tokyo Olympics and the COVID-19 protocols “would make Beijing planning very complex.”

“That said, we are proud to be the best-prepared NOC and NPC in the world, and we are exploring all options to bring our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as support staff, to the Games safely and efficiently,” he said. to say.

Athletes are not the only group affected by China regulations before the Olympics.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China issued a statement this month complaining about the “lack of transparency” of the Beijing Organizing Committee and the IOC regarding reports related to the Olympic Games in China.

The organizing committee told China’s Xinhua news agency that it plans to increase credentials for test events and that it is assigning staff to handle interview requests and inquiries. The committee said it does not recognize the FCCC.

Most journalists and Olympic support staff have also stopped to make their travel plans.

Much of the confusion in travel stems from the decisions of Chinese and American airlines to reduce the number of flights between countries from more than 300 a week to one digit. The setbacks began when demand fell sharply following the first outbreaks of COVID-19. The resumption of flights was slowed down due to diplomatic disputes between the countries, along with strict quarantine rules that make travel anywhere difficult. Just this week the U.S. reopened travel to some foreign visitors who may show vaccination evidence.

U.S. athletes are now facing collateral damage in this, as the USOPC is negotiating with Delta charter flights that are expected to cost six figures.

While the extremely limited number of flights between America and China is unique, the U.S. is not the only one that has an unprecedented amount of uncertainty so close to the Games. A recent search of the Air Canada website offered at least one option for flights between Vancouver and Beijing (with a stopover in Shanghai), where similar searches on the Delta and United websites did not offer any between the US and Beijing.

“Planning these Games has been a challenge because of COVID-19, but we experienced similar problems during our planning for Tokyo,” said David Shoemaker, director general of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “We have no reason to believe we will have trouble getting the Canadian team to the Games on time and ready to compete.”

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AP national writer Howard Fendrich and Pat Graham contributed to this report.

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