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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

COVID infections haunt Olympics despite precautions

Positive tests risk eliminating teams and top competitors

Members of the U.S. women's gymnastics team line up during training on July 22 at the Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo. The team opted for a hotel over the Olympic Village.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Even the best laid plans by 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizers have not been able to fully stem COVID-19 infections among those who have come to Japan for the Games.

South Africa's men's soccer team will play Japan on Thursday night, after an anxious afternoon waiting for the results of their COVID tests. Two players became the first positive cases inside the Olympic Village last weekend. FIFA, world soccer's governing body, said the rest of the team would have to test negative six hours before their first game Thursday night or forfeit the match to Japan.

The team's coach, David Notoane, lamented losing two of his starting players, a midfielder and a defender. Notoane also told reporters on Tuesday that isolation after the positive cases has left his players unable to train and acclimatize to Tokyo's hot summer.

While the 87 Olympic-related cases discovered since July 1 do not necessarily qualify as an outbreak, they have raised questions about how fair the field of play will be, especially if entire teams are knocked out of the competition by positive tests. The playbooks created by Olympic organizers lay out testing and isolation protocols before and after the athletes arrive in Japan, but they allow sports federations to rule in cases of pregame infection.

Such transmissions are likely with 11,000 athletes living in close quarters. Each Olympic Village apartment houses up to eight people. The U.S. gymnastics team decided to skip the village altogether, decamping to a nearby hotel.

"We know it isn't ideal for the Olympic experience, but nothing is ideal during a pandemic," USA Gymnastics coach Cecile Landi tweeted on Monday. "We feel like we can control the athletes and our safety better in a hotel setting!"

The whereabouts of the women's gymnastics team was the subject of speculation in Tokyo this week, after alternate Kara Eaker tested positive on Tuesday. The gymnastics competition, and Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast, draw the biggest audience for U.S. broadcaster NBC, along with swimming and track events. Biles and her five teammates were in top form at a Thursday training session.

On Thursday, Tokyo's operations chief acknowledged that some of the COVID playbook measures were working better than others. Considering the 32,000 arrivals and nearly 100,000 tests conducted so far, organizers see the 87 positive cases as a good sign.

"We consider this is the outcome of the fact that everyone read the playbook, managed their health condition, got vaccinated and tested prior to their arrival," said Hidemasa Nakamura, games delivery officer.

Of the 87 people infected, 35 came from overseas while 52 are residents of Japan. While nonresidents are immediately isolated for 14 days, local cases are not placed under the same stringent quarantine, causing concern for a Japanese public that has remained largely opposed to hosting the Olympics.

Adding to the anxiety are reports of media representatives violating quarantine. Security guards were posted outside the 150 hotels prescribed by organizers for the international media. The playbook says violators would have their Olympic accreditations and permission to stay in Japan revoked.

"We don't share the names of such violators," said Games security chief Tsuyoshi Iwashita. "From now on, though, ... we are considering making the cases public."

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