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Staff direct people as they make their way through the first steps of customs, COVID-19 testing and accreditations upon arriving at the airport in Beijing, on Jan. 31.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

If the goal is to keep everyone at the Olympics as far away from each other as possible, the condoms were an odd welcome gift.

There were five of them fanned out on the dresser of my room. Multicoloured, individually wrapped and, of course, King Size. If the transparent goal here is to win friends through flattery, it’s working. They’ll make lovely gag gifts back home.

The prophylactics were the oddest touch upon checking in to our Olympic hotel in the wee hours of Monday morning, Beijing time.

The nicest touch was the fruit plate (if the Olympic rule holds, that’s the last time we have easy access to fresh produce for three weeks).

The cleverest was the complimentary electric-plug converter.

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But the one that really got hold of your attention, and not in a fun way – a half-dozen, four-litre jumbo jugs of Nongfu Spring water. A few very unlucky souls are going to need them.

Now that we are finished wrangling over ‘”Should Beijing host this Olympics?”, we can move right into “Can Beijing host this Olympics?” The test of that isn’t just its ability to keep COVID-19 out, but to do so without making the entire occasion a misery.

For contrast, Tokyo had the same mandate. It was largely successful in keeping the virus out. It was a little less successful in creating a smooth bureaucracy to make that possible.

Arrivals to Tokyo ahead of the Games were often stuck in six-, seven-, eight-hour testing backlogs. While you waited for your results, they jammed the lot of you together in a repurposed departures lounge, whereupon half the occupants took off their masks and began screaming into their phones. It wasn’t exactly a high-water mark for Japan’s administrative capabilities.

From a COVID-19 perspective, Tokyo was pandemic theatre.

Beijing is working this deal a little differently.

Your plane lands at midnight. Most of the people on this aircraft left their homes more than 30 hours ago. They are not their best selves. More like the crustiest, least-accommodating and dullest version of themselves.

Yet upon arrival they are taken in firm, gentle hand by a bunch of extras from E.T., who are walking around in blue-and-white, head-to-toe onesies. When the travellers try bunching up at the door, they are shooed to the back.

By 12:15, they’re being hustled through an automated customs. Ten minutes later, they’re in testing.

There’s a throat swab and a nasal swab, which is more like a brain swab. I have had my share of these tests over the past two years. This medic got so far up there and was rubbing around for so long, I started to smell burning toast. I was so wobbly afterward, she had to pull me out of the chair. Strong lady.

Throughout, the alacrity was astounding. You never really stopped moving. This was all helped along by the fact that Beijing Capital International Airport was deserted. An entire, semi-darkened, sparsely heated terminal has been turned into a rodent maze for arriving participants.

By 12:30, we were going through auxiliary security (one guy leaning in to spray the conveyor belt between bags; three other guys arguing about something; zero guys checking what the X-ray was showing in the bags). By 12:45, we were being handed a bus guide. By 12:55, we were fishing for luggage, which they line up in the basement. And by 1 a.m., you were waiting for the bus. Just a smidge under an hour from gangway to sidewalk.

If I made it out of Toronto’s Pearson airport in an hour in the Before Times, I tried to remember to go to church later to light a candle. Clearly, someone had interceded on my behalf.

For authorities here to manage that sort of time given what’s going on right now is close to a supernatural feat of bureaucracy.

The landscape outside the airport is what had been advertised. There won’t be any fun walking tours of the city. The closest most of us will get to exploring the capital is the half-hour bus ride we just got off. If you missed anything – it was pitch black and the streets were empty – you can try again on the ride back out in three weeks’ time.

In between, Olympic visitors will be seeing their hotels, the venues and the roads that lead between those two places. In the words of organizers, to be caught anywhere else makes you “subject to local law enforcement.”

People were happily willing to test those rules in Tokyo, to the frequent exasperation of the hosts. Something tells me people won’t be feeling so naughty this time around.

Everyone who’s made it in now has the same question – “Did I come in clean?”

You were virus-free 96 and 72 hours out – because everyone had to test negative in those windows to get on a plane headed to China. But what about that guy who stood over you on the Toronto-to-Vancouver leg screaming across the aisle at his buddy? How COVIDy was that guy?

And then there was the empty row in front of you on the Vancouver-Tokyo leg that had stickers affixed to the empty aisle seats that read: “OCCUPIED: For Sick Passenger.”

That’s not fair. Sick with what?

Okay, fine, nobody sat in that row. But maybe that’s because they’d just died in it.

Until you test negative, you stay in your room. If you don’t test negative, that’s what the water’s for.

And you won’t know you’re in the clear for a few days. This is why everyone will travel around with a Go Bag, just in case they are swept off a mountainside and put into a quarantine hotel miles away from their clean underwear.

There are still a lot of ways this can go wrong for a lot of people. But based on the early impression given by Beijing, so far, so competent.

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