How the Olympics will navigate COVID-19

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TOKYO, JAPAN - JUNE 03: The Olympic Rings are displayed by the Odaiba Marine Park Olympic venue on June 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto has stated that she is 100 percent certain that the Olympics will go ahead despite widespread public opposition as Japan grapples with a fourth wave of coronavirus. The Japanese organising committee also announced yesterday that around 10,000 of the 80,000 volunteers originally scheduled to help at the Games have withdrawn as concern continues to surround the country’s ability to hold a huge sporting event amid a global pandemic. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)
The Olympic rings are displayed by the Odaiba Marine Park, an Olympic venue in Tokyo. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

The rescheduled 2021 Olympics, set to begin July 23 in Tokyo, will rely on testing, distancing, and a lengthy list of protocols – but not necessarily on vaccines – to combat COVID-19.

The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee on Tuesday revealed the third and final version of "playbooks" that outline countermeasures and rules that athletes and other Olympic participants must follow while in Japan. 

The countermeasures include daily COVID testing, restrictions on movement within and outside of Olympic venues, and removal from competition for anybody who tests positive.

The playbooks, which are 70 pages of cute illustrations and semi-specific information, were developed in consultation with international and Japanese health experts, over 15 months of planning, ever since the pandemic forced organizers to postpone the Tokyo Games last March.

Here's what we know about the plan to keep the Olympics relatively unaffected by the coronavirus.

What's the biggest way in which COVID-19 will affect the Olympics?

The sports themselves will be largely unaffected. They'll still feature roughly 10,900 athletes from around the world competing for 339 gold medals in 33 different sports.

But the Olympics are more than a sporting event. They are, in normal times, a sprawling global extravaganza, one of the biggest multinational gatherings known to humankind ... and, as a result, a petri dish for infectious diseases.

So they won't be as extravagant or festive in 2021. They'll be staged in a restrictive environment. Athletes won't be allowed to venture out into Tokyo and explore nightlife, won't be allowed to throw post-competition ragers in the Olympic Village, and won't be allowed to mingle and make new international friends.

The playbooks plead with Olympians to “avoid unnecessary forms of contact such as hugs, high-fives and handshakes”; to eat meals alone, or at least at a distance of six feet from others; and to refrain from walking around the city, even outdoors. All non-Japanese athletes will have to leave Japan within 48 hours of the end of their respective events.

Will there be fans?

There won't be any foreign spectators. Even family members of non-Japanese Olympians won't be able to attend.

As for Japanese fans, organizers are set to make a decision domestic attendance and venue capacities in late June.

How will organizers keep the Olympics safe, and what are the holes in their COVID-19 plan?

The plan relies heavily on testing to identify and contain infections – "testing on an unprecedented scale," Brian McCloskey, the chair of an Olympics-commissioned medical expert panel, said Tuesday. Over 100,000 tests will likely be administered throughout the Games. And athletes will be tested before and upon arrival to ensure no identifiable cases enter the Olympic bubble.

The other key point of emphasis will be limiting contact both among Olympians and between Olympians and the Japanese people. But with tens of thousands of volunteers also involved in the staging of the Games, some contact is inevitable.

Plus, although some athletes will be in secluded training camps before the Games, there is nothing to prevent athletes from contracting the virus before they travel to Tokyo. The playbooks ask athletes to "keep your physical contact with other people to a minimum during the 14 days before you travel to Japan," but there are no concrete restrictions until arrival in Japan.

Because of the virus' incubation period, it is therefore possible that an athlete could contract the virus from a family member two days before departure, test negative upon arrival, interact with peers in Tokyo and infect them before tests begin showing up positive (typically 3-7 days after infection).

The mechanisms to prevent that scenario are extensive and make it very unlikely. But unlikely outcomes can occur when the sample size is tens of thousands. Delegations are smaller than usual, but 10,900 athletes plus thousands more support staff, media members and other international stakeholders will be involved.

How many Olympians will be vaccinated?

We're not quite sure. There's no vaccine mandate. The IOC says that "over 80%" of people in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, but there's no evidence for that beyond the IOC's word. Christophe Dubi, the executive director of the Olympics, said in early June that the estimate was based on information from national Olympic committees.

But the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has said that it is not tracking the vaccination status of its Olympians. And while a vast majority of American athletes will be immunized, vaccines are much scarcer in most countries around the world. The IOC has worked with numerous parties, including Pfizer and the Chinese government, to secure priority access for some athletes. The IOC also said Tuesday that it has, in partnership with Pfizer, "made available 20,000 vaccine doses for Games participants from Japan, which are in addition to the current vaccination supply in Japan."

But not everybody in the Olympic bubble will be vaccinated, and the vaccines aren't 100% effective, so plenty of other measures will be in place.

Will vaccinated Olympians get preferential treatment?

No. The playbooks state, explicitly: "All of the rules ... will apply whether or not you have received a vaccine."

Vaccinated athletes will, of course, be far less likely to test positive for COVID-19 during the Games, but they'll have to follow the same testing and social distancing rules as unvaccinated Olympians.

How often will athletes be tested?

Every single day while in Japan.

The tests – which will be saliva antigen tests – will be arranged by so-called "COVID liaison officers" (CLOs) and testing times will vary depending on an athlete's schedule. Most will be at the start of the day or in the evening. There'll be testing stations in the Athletes' Village and competition venues. Athletes will spit into a container with a personalized barcode. Their CLO will submit the sample for transportation to a lab.

Results will be processed in less than 12 hours (by the end of the day in the case of a morning test; overnight in the case of an evening test), and athletes won't even be notified about negative test results – only positives.

Every Olympian will also have to secure two negative tests in the 96 hours before departure, and again upon arrival, in order to enter Japan. They'll receive a quick-turnaround test at the airport in Tokyo, then be ushered into a designated area while they await a negative result.

Page 60 of the Tokyo Olympics'
Page 60 of the Tokyo Olympics' "playbook" for athletes gives an overview of the testing regimen.

How often will other Olympic participants be tested?

Everybody living in the Olympic Village, including non-athletes, will also be tested daily. So will most national Olympic committee staffers, international sports officials, judges, equipment staffers, some broadcasters and photographers, and some sport-specific volunteers.

Other media members, volunteers, support staffers and marketing partners will be tested once very four days.

Those who have "limited or no contact" with the daily-test group will be tested once every seven days.

Page 61 of the playbook outlines the various categories of personnel:

(IOC/Tokyo 2020 playbook for athletes)
(IOC/Tokyo 2020 playbook for athletes)

What happens if an athlete tests positive?

If an athlete tests positive – and if a second confirmatory test also turns up positive – they'll be removed from competition and required to isolate at a designated hotel for a period of time "determined by the Japanese health authorities," per the playbooks. Their Olympics, in all likelihood, will be over.

Organizers say the confirmatory test results will take roughly three hours, so the chances of a false positive keeping an athlete out of competition are slim.

After a confirmed positive test, a contact tracing process will then begin to determine if any other athletes, coaches or other Olympic personnel must be quarantined or subject to additional, extra-cautious countermeasures.

Could contact tracing force an athlete to miss competition?

It sounds like that's unlikely. 

When somebody in the Olympic bubble tests positive, organizers and local health authorities will use interviews and data from a tracking app – which all participants will be required to download on their smartphones – to assess the likelihood that close contacts contracted the virus.

"The decision on applicable measures will be made on a case-by-case basis," the playbook says of protocols for close contacts, "and will take into consideration the likelihood of you spreading the virus. To be allowed to compete and/or continue your role, you will need" daily negative PCR tests, a clean medical assessment by health authorities, and agreement from sports authorities.

"If you are allowed to compete, enhanced countermeasures may be required," the playbook adds, "including further minimizing contact with others, moving to a private room, eating meals alone, using dedicated vehicles, or separation during training and at your competition venue."

So life in Tokyo could be affected by contact tracing, but the sports themselves might not be.

Will athletes have to wear masks?

Not during competition or training, and not while eating, drinking or sleeping, but just about everywhere else. They'll wear masks during medal ceremonies, at the Athletes' Village, and at competition venues before and after their events.

How will an athlete get around Tokyo?

Not via public transportation, unless absolutely necessary. There'll be dedicated vehicles that shuttle Olympians to and from most Games-related venues. And if none are available, according to the playbooks, athletes can use a "Transport by Chartered Taxi (TCT) service," with the costs covered by organizers. Any self-arranged transportation must be cleared by organizers and comply with COVID protocols.

Will athletes be able to socialize in the Olympic Village?

They've been asked not to – "limit your contact with other people as much as possible," the playbooks urge – but it's not quite clear how strict enforcement will be, or how authorities will restrict gatherings in, say, a room at the Village. The tracking apps on smartphones are supposedly only for contact tracing purposes.

Meanwhile, organizers are still planning to give out some 150,000 condoms, roughly 14 per athlete – though the organizing committee says that "the distribution of condoms is not for use at the athlete's village, but to have athletes take them back to their home countries to raise awareness" for HIV and AIDS issues.

Will athletes have roommates in the Olympic Village?

That hasn't quite been confirmed, but the playbook does mention roommates, so it sounds like they will. (Athletes in American sports bubbles and bubble-like atmospheres have largely been given their own rooms throughout the pandemic.)

What happens if an athlete breaks these rules?

It depends on the egregiousness of the violation. Organizers have left themselves some leeway. The IOC, in a Tuesday release, said that "potential consequences include: warnings; temporary or permanent exclusion from the Games; withdrawal of accreditation; disqualification ... and financial sanctions." At a news conference, organizers declined to clarify how heavy "financial sanctions" might be, or in what cases they'd be imposed.

A separate "disciplinary regulations" document outlines what might constitute a breach of the rules. The examples given include:

  • failure to wear a mask or observe social distancing measures

  • refusal to take a COVID test

  • non-compliance with authorities

Organizers will review each situation on a case-by-case basis, and a three-member "disciplinary commission" will decide on punishment.

"We will not speculate about which case would lead to what sanction," Dubi, the Olympics director, said Tuesday. "This is the role of the commission."

And when asked specifically whether an athlete who breaks rules post-competition, before departing Japan, could be deprived of a medal, organizers refused to clarify or speculate.

Is there an NBA-style snitch line for reporting violations?

Not that we know of, but the regulations state that "the IOC may be informed by any person and by any means of an alleged infringement."

Do athletes have to sign COVID-19 waivers?

They do. Or at least they have to sign a version of the waiver that always accompanies participation in the Olympics. But this year's has been updated to include COVID-specific language. Section 4 of the waiver, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, reads, in part:

"I agree that I participate in the Games at my own risk and own responsibility, including any impact on my participation to and/or performance in the Games, serious bodily injury or even death raised by the potential exposure to health hazards such the transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious disease or extreme heat conditions while attending the Games."

The playbooks reiterate to athletes: “You agree to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games at your own risk.”

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