April 4, 2022

Beijing 2022: Top things I learnt working the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic

When I was first asked if I’d consider going to Beijing to support Samsung’s Olympic Games activation, my first thought was ‘Me? Are you actually sure?’- alongside instantly wanting to go.

Samsung is a top tier Olympic partner and have been part of the movement for over 30 years. A global team of Ketchum colleagues were responsible for Samsung’s Team Samsung Galaxy ambassador activation, hustling athlete social content, developing and managing an incredible Virtual Media Centre, and all on the ground media activity in Beijing.

This was a huge opportunity for me. I’d be working directly with Samsung HQ co-ordinating on the ground activity with Ketchum offices from all over the globe, as well getting direct access to our athlete ambassadors. I could see the curveballs and intensity already, but I knew that the opportunity for learning was massive.

I’ll be totally honest; at times I was very nervous at the prospect of going. The rumour mill was on fire about the severity of the “Closed Loop” and it didn’t help my flight was cancelled three days before flying. I had my air purifier on full force anytime someone came near me in the run up to heading to Heathrow. Luckily, I knew that at Ketchum I have the most reassuring, caring, and calming support network, and if they were trusting me to travel 8,141km across the world there was a reason for that (and not just that they were trying to get some peace and quiet for 10 days!)

The Closest of Loops

When I stepped off the plane to a near empty airport, to be greeted with lines of hazmat suited figures and with my customs declaration forms refusing to process, I thought perhaps I could just get back on the plane peacefully. I’d never seen anything quite like it and although the Closed Loop system was destined to suck half of the fun out of our trip to Beijing, it did work – with only 430 reported cases of Covid across the Games. It was a serious operation, I saw Beijing through our shuttle bus window, the same ring road every day with glimpses of the normal and everyday life happening out there in the city. With little interaction with anyone from the ‘outside’ with workers draped in hazmat and goggles head-to-toe, the real heroes were the volunteers, a whole 18,000 of them who were consistently polite, warm and armed to try answer our constant questions ‘please can you speak to this taxi driver on the phone he’s lost trying to find the Media Center’. A trip to the mountain zone one day and we got to see some of the incredible Chinese scenery, in a bus service station in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere the volunteers were there too, I thought to myself ‘this has to be one of the worst jobs’, but they were still smiling through their masks. You have to admire them for the vital role they played, but also for just being human in one of the most bizarre, surreal situations imaginable.

A quick PE lesson…

Now I’m no sports expert; a statement founded on the fact my parents chose the London 2012 Olympics as a time to go on our summer holiday, my partner being a Spurs fan (sorry not sorry!) and bad knees hindering my sporting career…Fast forward six months working on this project and liaising with agents daily, and I was using sporting acronyms like I’d spent every winter in Chamonix (I’ve never picked up a ski pole in my life). PGS you ask? Yes, that’s Parallel Giant Slalom. What a name of heroic proportions for a snowboarding event. I found myself dreaming of taking up speedskating and ‘giving out’ my unsolicited advice at the huge screens on how these world champions should win Olympic medals. I suddenly knew more rules about late lane changes and penalties than I did hazards in my driving test 10 years ago. Although the madness of the Closed Loop system meant I was physically away from the action, the opportunity to almost be there opened me up to an entirely new industry, as well as an operation on a scale I’d never comprehended before.

3am club

Work life balance is huge, and everyone knows that going into event-mode, sacrifices will be made. Not only was the 8-hour time difference causing chaos to my sleep patterns (I was admitted early to the ‘3am club’), but the additional pressure of working alongside clients as well as a Ketchum global team based all over the world set a whole new meaning for ‘always on’. Taking moments for me-time and to remember yourself was important. At first when I clocked I was approaching my third hour in the queue for the infamous Beijing mascot Bing Dwen Dwen toy, I panicked how I’d justify the ludicrous time on my timesheet. But it’s not often you get to be at the central buzz of an event like this. You have to make the most of it and remember that ultimately your wellbeing and sanity comes first.

The Great Firewall of China

I thought I was pretty organised before I left Beijing – I’d printed enough pages to submit a manuscript to Penguin Random House. Yet, even with warning, I was stunned by the might of the Great Firewall of China at our hotel. Anything Google, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook related, even my humble Goodreads app, would have to wait.

Throughout my trip, adapting to Chinese digital platforms and local restrictions was a must including using ‘WeChat’ and understanding the basic concepts of Weibo (a Chinese blogging site). Not being able to spend my evenings scrolling through the depths of Twitter had me at a loss to start with, but eventually taught me to be imaginative in finding and consuming information. I wasn’t about to try to hack the Great Firewall of China, but I certainly should have downloaded my VPN and a few extra Netflix movies before I got on the plane…

With the Paralympics closing, I’ve had time to reflect on everything I’ve learnt over the past six months, but also everything we’ve achieved as a team. x22 medals for Team Samsung Galaxy athletes, Samsung retaining #1 SOV as a TOP sponsor and x1 Bing Dwen Dwen toy later, we made an epic team. Although the above are solo musings, I couldn’t have been anywhere without the amazing leadership and support within our Ketchum Samsung Beijing team, both at home in London and globally.

Unfortunately, there is no speed skating at Paris 2024, but regardless, I’d do it all again…

Written by Hayley Burrows, Senior Account Manager, Brand, Ketchum London