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Despite Positive COVID Cases, Team USA CEO Says Athletes Are Ready To Compete

A man wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic Rings ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The Games are scheduled to begin this week in Japan despite a global rise in coronavirus cases.
A man wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic Rings ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The Games are scheduled to begin this week in Japan despite a global rise in coronavirus cases.

Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are among the 11,000 athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics beginning this week on July 23.

More than 600 athletes from across the U.S. are headed to Japan to represent Team USA, and they'll have to navigate the twists and turns of this year's unusual Olympic Games.

The journey to Japan

Because of coronavirus protocols, athletes are only allowed to check into the Olympic Village five days before their scheduled events. Not only do athletes have to adjust their internal body clocks to a time zone at least 13 hours ahead, but they also have to adapt to the high temperatures and humidity of the area. Training camps for the swim and weightlifting teams have been set up in Hawaii, where conditions are closer to that of Japan; the location presents its own challenges, though, as Tokyo is still 19 hours ahead of Hawaii.

To get accustomed to the new country, many Team USA athletes are training in Tokyo outside of the Olympic Village, at a center in Setagaya operated by the U.S. Olympic committee. The training base provides nutrition services, sports medicine and recovery services.

Risk of the coronavirus looms large

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on July 15 that there was "zero" risk of athletes passing on the virus to local residents.

But coronavirus cases are already popping up throughout the Olympic Village and within Team USA. Organizers say 55 people linked to the Olympics have tested positive for coronavirus since July 1, not including athletes.

At least two players on the South African soccer team were the first athletes to test positive inside the Olympic Village. American athletes, including tennis player Coco Gauff and a member of the men's basketball team, have withdrawn after positive COVID-19 tests. And most recently, an alternate in the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team tested positive as well.

"Our number one priority is everyone's health and safety," Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, told NPR's Ailsa Chang about preparing for this year's Games. Hirshland says her mission is to empower the athletes to achieve their full potential.

COVID-19 protocols in the Olympic Village are strict after Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo during the world's biggest sports event. For instance, teams have to reserve their places in the dining hall in advance so that it's not overcrowded. Along with daily testing and social distancing, a "soft quarantine" has been implemented wherein athletes are restricted to the Olympic venues, the village and designated hotels.

According to the International Olympic Committee, more than 80% of the athletes set to compete in Tokyo will be vaccinated against COVID-19. Team USA has been encouraged to get vaccinated, although Hirshland says it's not mandatory.

"We also believe that there are some individuals who have strong beliefs or concerns, and wanted to give everyone the opportunity to make that decision for themselves," she says.

She says that athletes who test positive for COVID-19 are replaced like they would be if they had an injury, while ensuring they are "healthy and safe."

A once in a lifetime experience — for a lot of reasons

Olympic traditions will look starkly different this year. Spectators are banned from Olympic events, including the opening ceremony, whose lively Parade of Nations will be more muted than usual as many athletes aren't even allowed to arrive in Japan until after the opening ceremony concludes. Once they do arrive and compete, winning athletes will also have to drape gold, silver or bronze medals over their own necks.

Hirshland says mental health is the organization's top priority this year, especially at a time when it's being tested in unique ways. One of those challenges was the Olympics getting postponed for a year because of the pandemic.

"It was incredibly difficult for athletes to adjust their mindset around another year of training. When you're training at the elite levels like this, the commitment, the discipline, and frankly the sacrifices to any sense of a normal life are pretty significant. To extend that for another year, that was a pretty substantial mountain to climb for our athlete population," Hirshland says.

Even though the environment of the Tokyo Olympics will be different from decades of Games past, there's still plenty of team spirit.

"We're still seeing signs of tall towers with American flags down the banisters and a whole lot of team pride. It still creates that incredibly special environment of recognizing that you're part of something that is truly global," Hirshland says.

And we're still likely to see many athletes achieve personal bests because of the extended training period, Hirshland says. "The resiliency of Team USA has just been extraordinary," she says. "I would tell you unequivocally: Team USA is ready."

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