The dreaded possibility that the Covid-19 pandemic could disrupt the Tokyo Olympics is quickly becoming a reality, as Games organizers scramble to cope with a growing load of athletes and officials who test positive for their arrival in Japan.
The flow of positive cases quickly demonstrates how difficult it will be to host one of the world’s biggest events during a global pandemic. Tens of thousands of participants from more than 200 countries are entering a country where the vaccination rate of the local population remains low and the more contagious Delta variant is spreading.
South Africa’s football governing body said on Sunday that two of its men’s team based in the Olympic Village and a technical staff member had tested positive and were in isolation. International Olympic Committee member Ryu Seung-min, originally from South Korea, also tested positive after arriving, organizers of the Games said.
And on Sunday, the British Olympic Association confirmed that six athletes and two staff from its track team have been identified as close contacts of an individual – not part of the GB team delegation – who tested positive after arriving in Tokyo on Friday. Members of the British delegation continued to test negative and are in isolation in their rooms at the team’s camp.
A total of 55 people linked to the Olympics, including officials and contractors working on the Summer Games, have tested positive since July 1, according to data from organizers.
Some were trapped by protocols before they even set foot on Japanese soil. USA Basketball was days away from the start for the Olympics when Bradley Beal was suddenly declared unable to compete, suggesting the National Basketball Association star tested positive at training camp. The US team were already on their way to Tokyo without three players, who plan to board a plane after the NBA Finals. But the league is now facing its own concerns related to Covid, as players, coaches, referees and television analysts were sidelined last week.
Tokyo Olympics organizers changed their protocols almost daily to try and avoid problems. But with some competitions starting on Wednesday, before the official opening on Friday, it is possible that some athletes will miss their events due to Covid-related issues.
The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team, starring Olympic superstar Simone Biles, gave a first glimpse of this uncertainty when a member of the group tested positive for the virus in Japan before subsequently being tested negative, leading to the conclusion that the first result was a false positive.
Organizers say extensive testing for Olympic participants, including before travel to Japan, upon arrival and throughout the Games, as well as social distancing, mask wearing and quarantine regulations, will prevent a generalized epidemic of the virus. They also have an evolving protocol in place to try to prevent athletes from being unnecessarily kept away from events.
Spectators are banned from most events. Athletes are tested every day. Rather than visiting or socializing after their events, they are required to leave the Olympic Village 48 hours after their event ends or they are eliminated, whichever comes first. Organizers say more than 80% of athletes are fully vaccinated.
“Olympic Games participants are the most controlled population in the world,” said IOC Olympic Games Director of Operations Pierre Ducrey.
But the Olympics are not a sequestered “bubble” like the one America’s professional sports leagues built last year. NBA players flew to Walt Disney World by private jet, unlike the majority of Olympians, who have used commercial flights – which have previously caused problems involving both the women’s and men’s rugby sevens teams in South Africa. South, after at least one passenger on each of their respective flights tested positive for Covid-19 on landing.
The NBA bubble also depended on extensive pre-arrival testing and confining teams to individual rooms for two days of quarantine until testing. It worked: the league did not report any cases among players.
These precautions were necessary before the development of highly effective vaccines, but the Olympic the organizers did not demand that the athletes be vaccinated. Olympic officials did not want to prioritize the young and healthy over the millions of elderly and medically vulnerable people around the world who do not have access to vaccines.
The incubation period of up to 14 days for the virus means athletes could test negative multiple times before suddenly producing a positive test result just before or during competition. The South African team’s chief medical officer said the incubation period was likely the reason the village’s two athletes tested positive. The South African men’s soccer team are due to play their first game on Thursday.
“Each member of the South African team required full medical clearance as an eligibility criterion. In addition, they were encouraged to self-isolate for two weeks prior to departure, monitor their health daily, report any symptoms, and produce two negative nasopharyngeal PCR tests performed within 96 hours of departure as per Tokyo requirements. 2020, ”said Dr Phatho Zondi.
The overriding problem for the Tokyo organizers is that there is no escape from the density or the internal nature of international travel to the Olympic Games and to their accommodation. And then there is no escape in many sports from the permanent nature of contact between athletes – almost always maskless for their high intensity activities. This means that a single positive test invariably attracts more athletes and potentially entire teams.
Tokyo organizers have now ruled that athletes identified as close contacts will undergo a nasal swab PCR test every day and must be quarantined in one room all the time, including for meals. Athletes will be allowed to attend training sessions and compete as long as they are negative within six hours before the start of each training session or competition, as well as immediately before the competition, according to Tokyo organizers. .
Vaccines have been shown to be very effective in preventing death and serious illness from Covid-19, but they do not completely prevent infection. A number of vaccinated athletes have tested positive. Scientists are not yet sure whether vaccinated people who test positive are contagious.
Jonathan Finnoff, chief medical officer of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said in a recent interview that organizers would likely take a variety of factors into account when tracing contacts and determining who to exclude from the competition. Among them are the length and nature of contact people have had with someone who has subsequently tested positive, and even potentially that person’s viral load, Finnoff said.
—Daniela Hernandez, Ben Cohen and Miho Inada contributed to this article.
Write to Rachel Bachman at [email protected], Alastair Gale at [email protected] and Louise Radnofsky at [email protected]
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