Coronavirus cluster overshadows run-up to Tokyo Olympics
By Motoko Rich
The opening ceremony is Friday and the first competitions are Wednesday. But organizers of the Tokyo Olympics, delayed one year by the pandemic, are struggling to manage public anxiety about the Games after an outbreak of coronavirus cases that threaten to overshadow the festivities.
As about 20,000 athletes, coaches, referees and other officials have poured into Japan in recent days, more than two dozen of them have tested positive for the virus, including three cases within the Olympic Village. An additional 33 staff members or contractors who are Japanese residents working on the Games have tested positive.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee confirmed Monday that a teenage alternate on the women’s gymnastics team had tested positive for the coronavirus while in training in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo.
“In alignment with local rules and protocols, the athlete has been transferred to a hotel to quarantine,” the committee said in a statement.
The city of Inzai, where the team has been training, said in a statement that the gymnast tested positive Monday after entering Japan last week. Another alternate who was in close contact with her is awaiting the results of a coronavirus test.
Olympics organizers have said their measures — including repeated testing, social distancing and restrictions on movement — would limit, but not eliminate, coronavirus cases. The Games, originally scheduled for 2020, were postponed a year in the hopes the pandemic would have eased by then and they would herald a triumphant return to normal.
Instead, they have become a reminder of the staying power of the virus and have fed a debate over whether Japan and the International Olympic Committee have their priorities straight.
Such is the unease that Toyota, one of the prime corporate sponsors of the Games, announced Monday it would not run any Olympic-themed television advertisements during them.
“There are many issues with these Games that are proving difficult to be understood,” Jun Nagata, the company’s chief communications officer, told reporters, according to The Associated Press.
The three people who tested positive inside the Olympic Village were from the South African soccer team, including two athletes and one official. They were isolated in a separate building while an additional 21 people in close contact with them are quarantining in their rooms.
Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo organizing committee, said athletes who were in close contact with those who tested positive would be allowed to train if they otherwise follow the isolation restrictions. Athletes are tested daily and if they test negative within six hours of a competition, they will be allowed to play.
Another six athletes and two Olympics staff members from Britain were also isolating after they had been informed that they had sat near a person on their flight to Tokyo who had tested positive for the coronavirus at the airport.
The Associated Press reported that Ondřej Perušič, a beach volleyball player competing for the Czech Republic, had also tested positive in the Olympic Village.
At a news conference over the weekend, Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s sports director, said “there is no such thing as zero risk,” adding that through testing and rigorous contact tracing and quick isolation, the Olympic Village would be “a COVID-safe environment but not COVID free.”
The Japanese public remains anxious about the staging of the Olympics amid a slow rollout of vaccines and a recent rise in coronavirus cases in the capital. Daily case counts have exceeded 1,000 for several days for the first time since mid-May. Tokyo is under a state of emergency. A poll by Kyodo News, a wire service, released over the weekend showed 87% of those surveyed said they were worried about hosting the Olympics during the pandemic.