A Look at the Tech Inside an Olympics Like No Other

After the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the host for this year’s Winter Games, organizers in the city got to work strategizing methods to showcase recent accomplishments in China’s technology industry on this highly coveted global stage. But when it became evident that the Covid-19 pandemic would necessitate a significant shift in gears, planners were forced back to the drawing board. The new challenge had suddenly become finding a way to maintain China’s steadfast zero-Covid approach, while also welcoming in thousands of foreign visitors and effectively displaying to the world its technological and economic prowess. The result? An expansive city within a city – a techno-utopian half-prison, half-paradise in which athletes compete, journalists report, and hazmat-clad workers scurry about to keep it all running efficiently and free of infection.

As an Olympics like none before draws to a close, Pandaily had a look at some of the key technologies underpinning the Beijing Olympics’ so-called “closed loop management” (闭环管理 bìhuán guǎnlǐ).

There’s an App for That

The adorable, if slightly spaced out, face of Bing Dwen Dwen (left) and partner Olympic mascot Shuey Rhon Rhon greet users of the official My 2022 app. (Image: Apple App Store)

In order to bring about the ambitious system envisioned by organizers, a fundamental criterion was to eliminate the possibility of Covid-19 outbreaks within the closed loop. This has entailed daily tests for all residents of the bubble, with results automatically updated to a mandatory app called My 2022.

Without a valid negative test result, visitors have been unable to obtain an almighty green health code similar to the one that 1.4 billion people living on the other side of the bubble have become accustomed to during the pandemic, allowing access to public transportation and common venues.

A second fundamental criterion for such a system was to eradicate all interaction between those within the bubble and the local urban population. The assortment of venues and transportation vehicles that together comprise the closed loop are scrupulously protected around the clock by Olympics staff. If an athlete needs to travel from their central Beijing hotel to a competition venue in Zhangjiakou, for example, they must book a special purpose high-speed train via My 2022.

In addition to the health monitoring functions, the app also offers weather and navigation information and translation services. Despite concerns over potential vulnerabilities, My 2022 represents the core piece of digital infrastructure used to stitch together the closed loop management system.

An Olympic Performance to Watch: China’s Digital Renminbi

China’s digital yuan, which recently became widely available via mobile apps, is undergoing a closely watched pilot run at this year’s Winter Olympics. (Source: SmartShanghai)

The Beijing Winter Olympics have been touted by domestic officials as the global unveiling party for China’s central bank digital currency (CBDC). Unlike standard cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, CBDC enjoy the full backing of a country’s monetary authorities, bringing potential benefits including greater financial inclusion and simplified governance.

According to recent comments to the Tech Buzz China by Pandaily podcast, Shanghai-based analyst Richard Turrin said that China’s digital renminbi, or e-CNY, “allows for digital payment to become an integral part of society and built more deeply in society than the credit cards and payment systems that [people outside China] are used to today.”

Up till now, the digital renminbi has only been used in limited trial settings for Chinese mainland citizens. The Olympics closed loop offers the perfect controlled scenario to bring the e-CNY to international users.

It’s not yet clear how popular China’s digital currency has been among overseas visitors. In many key bubble venues, such as the main media center, visitors have had to choose between three payment options: Visa, cash or the e-CNY.

An official from the People’s Bank of China has said recently that the e-CNY has been used for roughly 2 million yuan ($316,190) in combined daily transactions within the closed loop, although no user demographic breakdown has been revealed just yet. According to initial reports from inside the bubble, it does not appear to have been a popular option among foreigners.

Prepping for Gameday in Zero Gravity Beds

U.S. athlete Summer Britcher replying to comments comparing the beds at Beijing 2022 to those in Tokyo last year (Image: TikTok/@summerbritcher)

If goals for the e-CNY’s globalization fall short of expectations, closed loop management organizers can point to other areas of success. Following debunked rumors of “anti-sex” cardboard beds used to limit the spread of Covid-19 at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, those at the Beijing Winter Games have been a smash hit.

Much of the buzz surrounding the athletes’ smart beds pertains to their mysterious “zero-gravity” mode, which purportedly reduces pressure on all muscles and joints to achieve the utmost relaxation.

In a recent interview, the general manager of Qisheng Technologies – the official smart bed supplier for the 2022 Winter Olympics – revealed that the zero gravity function aims to emulate the feeling of an astronaut by raising the head by 15° and the feet by 35°.

U.S. Olympian Summer Britcher posted a widely shared video to TikTok, claiming: “I’m in zero-G mode now – it’s phenomenal!”

A Snowy Oasis

Children practice skiing at a ski resort in Luquan District in Shijiazhuang, north China’s Hebei Province, February 17, 2021. (Image: Xinhua)

Although sufficiently cold in winter months, Beijing’s arid climate means that the snow used for competition venues in the bubble is 100% artificial. Recent Winter Games have not lagged far behind – according to USA Today, the rate for Pyeongchang 2018 was 98% while Sochi in 2014 came in at 80%.

Providing all the snowmaking equipment for this year’s Beijing Olympics is TechnoAlpin, an Italian firm which holds a 60% share of the global market. In efforts to offset the unsustainable nature of producing a wintry wonderland in the middle of a dry zone, officials have also announced intentions to plant 47,333 hectares of forest.

In order to meet demand for the ice used in various indoor events, while keeping an eye on concerns over the Games’ potential environmental impact, organizers in Beijing have enlisted the help of technology that has reportedly never been used at the Olympics.

Transcritical carbon dioxide direct cooling technology is reportedly the safest, most affordable and least energy-consuming method for producing artificial ice. Adoption of this technology aligns with Beijing’s goal of presenting itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change.