WASHINGTON — The bad news is that the Tokyo Olympics, which history will surely remember as “The Coronavirus Games,” are off to a calamitous start. Worse, the opening ceremonies don’t even take place until the end of the week.
The difficulty — or perhaps the insanity — of bringing thousands of athletes, coaches, trainers and support personnel from around the world into a tight cluster during a global pandemic, in a mostly unvaccinated country, has already become obvious. Those of us who love the Olympics have to worry that things may go downhill from here.
An alternate for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which is expected to win a chest-ful of medals, tested positive for the coronavirus while training in Inzai City, near Tokyo, organizers announced Monday. She is now in quarantine, while another alternate who was in close contact with her is “on standby.”
This raises obvious and alarming questions about the status of the six principal members of the team, who traveled to Japan with the alternates. That included the magnificent Simone Biles, who is seeking a gold medal hoard that would cement her status as the greatest gymnast of all time.
Meanwhile, Coco Gauff, the 17-year-old U.S. tennis phenom who had a good chance to win a medal, announced Sunday she was withdrawing from the Olympics after a positive coronavirus test. Two players and a video analyst for the South African soccer team tested positive Sunday, and that whole team is now in quarantine; the South African rugby coach tested positive as well. And Tokyo organizers said another “non-Japanese” athlete, whom news reports identified as a team staffer from the Czech Republic, also had a positive test result.
There is — obviously — no requirement that athletes and members of their entourages be vaccinated, though some of the people who tested positive had been inoculated. And given the infectiousness of the delta variant, even asymptomatic people may put others at risk. With only about 22% of the Japanese population fully vaccinated, the Tokyo Olympics are what you might come up with if you decided to design a superspreader event from scratch.
I’m hoping the Games do not end up being a total disaster; the world could use a moment of unity, and a demonstration of public health capacity. But I’m worried about the potential impact on Japan. And I’m especially worried about the health and well-being of the athletes who will live in proximity to one another in the Olympic Village, compete in events that do not allow for masks or distancing, and some of whom are not vaccinated.
Michael Andrew, a swimmer on the U.S. team, said he will not get vaccinated before the Games because he feared side effects could interfere with his training schedule. “Everything we take and put in our body is very calculated,” he said. “You know, with the period going into Olympic trials, I didn’t want to risk any time out of the pool.”
All Olympic athletes aim to fine-tune their bodies so their strength, speed and fitness peak during the Games. There is indeed the possibility that a reaction to vaccination might briefly interrupt a training regimen. Getting covid-19 during the Games, however, would end an athlete’s Olympic dreams altogether — and could have long-term health impacts that are still not fully understood.
Organizers estimated last month that 80% of athletes would be vaccinated when the Games begin. Given that the vaccines are so much more widely available in the United States than in most other countries, it is likely that the overall vaccination rate in the Olympic Village will be lower than it is on the U.S. squad. These early positive tests among our athletes should be a warning sign.
So why on earth are we doing this?
The great joy of the Olympics is seeing so many young men and women from all around the globe putting politics aside, competing as equals and forging unlikely friendships based on mutual respect and admiration. The Games allow us, if only for a couple of weeks, to celebrate our common humanity and imagine a better world.
In the Tokyo Games, however, the focus may be not on the quality of competition but on whether organizers can prevent a devastating outbreak of covid-19 in the Olympic Village and a dangerous rise in Japan’s overall infection rate.
The Coronavirus Games should have been canceled, but it’s too late for that now. The world will be watching not just to witness the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but also to learn the daily results of coronavirus testing. And the 2021 Olympics will always bear an asterisk — a symbol reminiscent of the spike-covered virus that sadly may be the star of these Games.