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Welcome to the COVID-19 Olympics: How Team USA is Coping with Safety Protocols

Navigating COVID-19 testing and contact tracing at the Games is an added layer of stress for athletes competing in Tokyo.

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The 130 U.S.A. Track & Field athletes traveling to Tokyo Olympics in 10 days are in for an experience like no other. Making it to the start line amid strict COVID-19 protocols will require the same amount of diligence as preparing for the highest level of competition.

The Games begin on July 23, with the track and field program kicking off on July 30. Between now and then, athletes are advised to keep their hands washed, masks on, and exposure to crowds limited. The Olympics are proceeding under a state of emergency in Tokyo, where COVID-19 cases continue to rise and the vaccination rate in Japan is hovering around 20 percent. Inviting about 11,000 athletes—plus their coaches and other support staff—from all over the world has local authorities demanding significant mitigation rules.

Rachel Schneider, who is competing for Team USA in the 5,000 meters, said that making sure she’s following all the COVID-19 requirements will be part of the Olympic challenge.

“It’s going to be a really strict protocol based off what they said in team processing,” Schneider said. “I’m almost expecting that to be one of the more challenging elements, just to make sure that you’re checking all the boxes to do what you need to do to show up on that start line and to avoid any contact tracing or anything that could pull you from the Games.”

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Not only do athletes need to remain vigilant about their own health, but the health of all the people around them. If one athlete tests positive, there’s a risk that many more will be determined a close contact and take everybody out of the Games. Emily Sisson, who’s competing in the 10,000 meters, agrees that the pandemic adds a layer of stress.

“[The biggest challenge in Tokyo] I think  will be all the COVID protocols,” Sisson said. “I remember when I traveled to Spain for a half marathon [in 2020], I nearly didn’t get on the plane because I found all that really difficult.”

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Robert Chapman, U.S.A. Track & Field’s director of sports science and medicine, says that a “substantial percentage” of the athletes on the team are vaccinated (he could not provide a specific number), but a complicating factor is contagious variants—the vaccines are effective in preventing severe symptoms, hospitalizations, and death, but not always at preventing an infection. If one is found, it also implicates the person’s close contacts—which could add up, given that team members live, train, travel, and eat together.

For that reason, Team USA alternates (typically those who placed fourth at the Trials in their events) are on a more pronounced stand-by than usual, Chapman said. They’ve already received at-home COVID testing kits from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as Team USA racing gear.

“We’re communicating to the alternates to essentially be on ready alert and be ready to go,” Chapman said. “They will be ready to get on an airplane at a moment’s notice. We’re trying to get across to them that they need to be more ready than they might otherwise be, because the chances of them being called into action is greater than what they would be in a normal Olympics.”

Still, over the course of the 10-day Olympic Trials in June, where the 1,300 competitors were tested routinely, only two athletes were unable to compete after positive tests (one of them was vaccinated). Although face masks and physical distancing have become less stringent in American society lately, Chapman is encouraging the Olympic team to keep up those strategies because they work—and they’ll also be a requirement in Tokyo.

“Our messaging to the athletes is to continue to be smart and continue to follow those good behaviors because they will mitigate risks, even if the Delta variant is more contagious,” he said.

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Athletes will be COVID tested prior to departing for Tokyo and upon arrival. They must wait at the airport for their test results before proceeding to the Olympic Village, where Chapman says 100 percent of the team is staying. They’ll also be tested every day and required to input daily health screenings on an app—all in an effort to prevent an outbreak that could not only end Olympic dreams, but further infect a vulnerable local community.

The testing requirement adds significant time to travel, as well. Chapman said that most of the track and field team will arrive in Japan on July 25, and so far the process has taken up to eight hours (with an average wait of about five hours) from the time the plane lands until the athlete boards the bus to the Olympic Village, which is another hour and half away. That’s on top of a long flight to Asia (about 12 hours from Los Angeles). It could result in a 20-hour (or more) journey, just five days before competition.

Chapman is telling athletes to make sure they have food with them for the long wait, remember to charge their phones (the apps are required to enter Japan), as well as books to read or movies to watch. He’s also warning them to plan their sleep schedules carefully.

“If you sleep on the plane going to Japan, land, and wake up, you’re basically in trouble,” he said. “They better have a plan for how they’re going to handle that stress and recover from it so they can get in the training that they need in the four days they have left and be ready to go. Those things are absolutely mission-critical.”

At the Trials, Jenny Simpson, who won bronze in the 1500 meters at the Rio Games but did not qualify for Tokyo, noted that COVID-19 made the competition routine and travel logistics more rigorous.

“Having to plan for those protocols is almost like a whole other race in itself. It’s just different, but everybody has to do it. The people who are most prepared are getting through it with the least amount of trouble,” she said. “Just read every rule book, read every manual, read every email from Robert Chapman and just be prepared.”

Still, COVID has undoubtedly stolen some of fun, too. Part of the spirit of the Games is the opportunity to mix and mingle with athletes from around the globe, as well as sharing such a special moment with loved ones, who are banned from attending. It can take a toll.

The Olympians will perform in an empty stadium (no spectators) and even the traditional medal ceremonies will look different—athletes will pick their medals up off a tray while standing on a larger podium to allow more space between them, wear face masks, and skip the traditional group photo on the gold-medal platform.

“It was frankly really hard to find out that our families can’t go over,” said Molly Seidel, who’s competing in the marathon. “We’re only allowed to go five days before the race. We won’t have an opening ceremony. It will not be a typical Olympic experience. So I’ve been trying to frame a lot of my expectations around the actual race because that is the one thing I’m looking forward to regardless of everything else. We know that there will be a marathon to run.”

Aliphine Tuliamuk, who’s also a member of the U.S. marathon team, is allowed to bring her daughter, Zoe, who she’s breastfeeding at six months old. But other moms like Quanera Hayes, who is racing the 400 meters, will be leaving little ones at home. Hayes was already separated from her two-year-old son, Demetrius, for four months. In the spring of 2020, he was visiting his grandparents in the Bahamas and got stuck there during the pandemic travel ban.

“That was the worst experience of my life…he was growing up and learning new stuff without me,” Hayes said, later adding that it is “heartbreaking” that Demetrius can’t come to Tokyo. “I’m a little sad that he won’t be there. It’s my first Olympic team, being a mom. You want your kid there but I understand that his health and my health and everybody else’s health is important and that comes first.”

For his part, Chapman has faith that all the Team USA members will adapt to the protocols and perform well at the Games.

“They’re the best group in terms of rolling with the punches,” he said. “They’re pretty resilient. Every country has to deal with this and the fact that I think we are prepared for this is going to be a logistical advantage for us on the ground.”