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An unconventional time to report sports: Peggy Shinn on covering the Winter Olympics in 2022

A woman smiles with green mountains in the background.
Andrew Shinn, Courtesy
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Peggy Shinn is a Vermont-based freelance writer and Olympics reporter for TeamUSA.org.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has been surging throughout the U.S. and the world, but you may have noticed it hasn't done much to stop the world of sports.

The NFL playoffs are in full swing. And events like the Australian Open have forged ahead, albeit without the world's number one men's player who was booted from Down Under after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID. And concerns are being addressed aggressively in China, as well, in advance of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Peggy Shinn, a Rutland-based freelance writer and Olympics reporter for TeamUSA.org. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: The games are set to begin on February 4, when do you expect to leave for Beijing?

Peggy Shinn: Well, I'm leaving this coming Sunday. I'm flying to LA for two days, and then I fly on January 26 to Beijing via Tokyo.

Well, what sort of COVID prevention measures do you have to follow here, because I understand that the Chinese government is being pretty aggressive about doing whatever it can to protect athletes and reporters like yourself?

First of all, and probably most importantly, vaccines are mandatory. And if you choose not to have a vaccine, for whatever reason, you have to quarantine for 21 days once you arrive in China. I don't know anybody for whom that's feasible. So I'm just assuming everybody who's going to China is vaccinated.

Two weeks before we leave, we have to enter our daily health info, you know, like temperature and how we're feeling. You know, the various COVID symptoms. You have to check yes or no into a specific app that the Beijing Organizing Committee is making everybody download onto their smartphone.

You also have to upload your vaccine info into this app. And if you've previously had COVID, there's a whole, you know, stack of other paperwork you have to submit. Then 96 and 72 hours before your final flight to China — so because my final flight leaves from Tokyo, I had to do all the math with the timezone changes to figure out when 96 and 72 hours is before I leave — I have to have COVID tests. And then once you get those, you get a green QR code on this app. And if you don't have that green QR code, you cannot board your flight to go to China.

So I've been wearing a N95 mask everywhere. I'm only leaving the house for what I absolutely need to. I'm even wearing my mask around my daughter in the house, she probably thinks I'm crazy.

Well, actually, you would anticipate at my next question, because even though all of that sounds like you know, that is good preparatory protection, it also may have the effect of making you feel more nervous. Is that how you're feeling?

I'm feeling very nervous. I was feeling nervous before I went to Tokyo this summer. But I felt reassured that I had the vaccine, which meant, you know, I felt pretty certain that I wouldn't catch COVID. But now, you know, I'm doubly vaccinated and boosted. But there's no saying that's not a prevention for omicron. You know, if I get it, it'll hopefully be a mild case. But if I get it in China, I'm sent to the kind of scary sounding isolation facility.

And yet you are forging ahead. You're a reporter after all, and I know you love sports, you're an athlete yourself. So I'm wondering which events are you looking forward to covering while you're there and what can you tell us about any Vermonters who are competing in Beijing?

So I'm going to be covering mostly the alpine ski events, the sliding events, you know, bobsled, luge, skeleton. And then I'm also hoping to cover bobsled and biathlon, but they're in different zones than alpine skiing in the sliding sports. So I have to get there and figure out how easy it is to travel between zones before I can decide exactly what I'm covering.

I do love cross country and biathlon, so I'm hoping I can get up to the those venues because that's where most of the Vermonters are.

For cross country, we have the Stratton Mountain School cross country skiers, Jessie Diggins, who will be a defending gold medalist, Rosie Brennan, who went to Dartmouth. The team hasn't been named yet, but I'm assuming Julia Kern, who's a Stratton Mountain School cross country skier because she's met the criteria. Hopefully Ben and Katharine Ogden from Landgrove, Vermont. Maybe Sophia Laukli, who was a Middlebury student, she transferred to Utah, and maybe UVM grads Scott and Caitlin Patterson.

And then in biathlon, we've got the Craftsbury athletes Susan Dunkley, who's from Barton, Jake Brown, Claire Egan, and then the National Guard athletes Deedre Irwin, Leif Nordgren and Sean Doherty.

And what's the latest that you can tell us about the status of skier Mikaela Shiffrin the Burke Mountain Academy grad of course, one of the best skiers in the world, if not the best right now and the women's game. She came down with COVID recently, which disrupted her training schedule and forced her to miss some preparatory races in advance of the games. How is she doing now?

Well, I haven't spoken with Mikaela recently. I do know she's recovered from COVID. And she skipped the speed races this past weekend, and was training in Austria. And for Mikaela, training is key. Like, the more she trains, the more confident she feels. So the fact that she's getting an extra training, I think, is a really good sign for Beijing.

There's another interesting twist here, Peggy, and that's that the government in China has decided not to sell tickets to the general public for events. Instead, they're inviting certain groups of people. And I'm guessing this is like family and friends, trainers, etc.

I wonder if you think the smaller crowds will have a detrimental effect for these athletes who may thrive some of them at least on crowd energy and reaction? Or do you think that they're just so primed and focused on the task at hand that it won't affect their performance too much?

That's an interesting question. We saw that in Tokyo as well. You know, the athletes there, they do their sport, they love to perform, they feed off the crowd, but they do.

You know, I talked to a lot of the swimmers and they do tend to focus at the task at hand. But then I talked to a couple of the tennis players. And one of them was said something funny, like, we might as well have been playing in a cornfield in Idaho, because there were no fans in the stands. So I think it depends on the athlete and their personality. You know, how focused they can get how much they feed off the crowd. So I think it's it's pretty individual.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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