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Olympic Athletes Face Strong COVID-19 Protocols, Restrictions As Cases Rise in Tokyo

As Japan welcomes athletes, support staff and journalists from across the world for the Tokyo 2020 Games, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the city and country. 

Multiple teams have already seen positive COVID-19 tests before opening ceremony began. South Africa men’s soccer team was the first to have athletes test positive within the village. Even Team USA has been impacted by the coronavirus, as alternate gymnast Kara Eaker tested positive during training camp, and tennis star Coco Gauff withdrew before the Games after testing positive. 

Olympic organizers reported 19 new cases Friday—the largest single-day total of COVID-19 cases so far—including three athletes and three residents of the Olympic Village. Out of the new cases, four are residents of Japan while the remaining 15 are nonresidents. 

This latest update brought the known total of Olympic-related cases since July 1 to 106. Meanwhile, Tokyo reported 1,979 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday—its highest total in six months.

It's likely that positive cases will continue to rise as the Olympics unfold, and so far at least eight athletes have been ruled out from competing since testing positive after arriving in Japan. 

Here's an overview of testing protocols, vaccine rules and restrictions athletes face at the 2020 Olympics.

What are the testing protocols and vaccine requirements for Olympic athletes? 

Testing began before the athletes and all Games participants arrived in Tokyo. They needed to produce two negative tests to board a plane to Japan—one at least 96 hours and one taken at least 72 hours before departure. 

Participants, including medical staff, coaches and journalists, took a saliva test upon arrival and had to wait at the airport until they received a negative test result. If an athlete tested positive, they had to either enter isolation or go to the hospital for treatment. 

Once in Tokyo, athletes have to take daily saliva tests. If they are staying within the Olympic Village, their temperature is taken each time they return. 

The COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory for Olympic athletes, and the restrictions as well as a majority of the protocols are the same no matter an athlete's vaccination status. 

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USOPC chief medical officer Jonathan Finnoff said Friday that approximately 83% of Team USA is vaccinated. 

What restrictions do they face? 

The Olympics will operate in a bubble-esque environment. 

Everyone at the Games is required to wear masks at all times, socially distance and take standard measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, such as frequent washing of hands. Some sport-specific measures were also added, such as clapping rather than singing or yelling to cheer on teammates. 

Additionally, athletes are not allowed to take public transportation and can only leave their accommodations to go to official Olympic venues. If they violate the protocols, they could face a range of consequences, including being disqualified from the Games. 

Athletes are not required to stay within the Olympic Village, though it is strongly encouraged. The USA Gymnastics team, for example, is staying in a separate hotel. Accommodations must be certified by Tokyo 2020 organizers. 

What happens if an athlete tests positive? 

An athlete who tests positive for COVID-19 is not allowed to compete and is immediately placed into isolation. The length of isolation is determined by Japanese health authorities based on the severity of the individual's symptoms. 

The IOC released sport-specific guidelines for how competitions proceed if there is a positive test at the group stage or in a knockout round. However, there are three points that apply across the board. 

  • No athlete or team will be listed as "disqualified" for returning a positive test. Instead, they will be listed as "DNS" (did not start) or sport-equivalent designation if they are unable to compete. 
  • Per the IOC Executive Board: "The minimum result of the athlete/team will be protected, considering the phase of competition at which they could not compete."
  • The next most eligible athlete or team will replace an athlete or team unable to compete whenever possible to allow the competition to proceed as usual. 

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