Despite positive COVID cases, Team USA CEO says athletes are ready to compete

Footballer Megan Rapinoe, swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are among 11,000 athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics which kick off this week on July 23.

More than 600 athletes from across the United States will travel to Japan to represent Team United States, and they will have to navigate the twists and turns of this year’s unusual Olympics.

The trip to Japan

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

To get used to the new country, many athletes of the American team train in Tokyo outside the Olympic Village, in a center in Setagaya managed by the American Olympic Committee. The training base provides nutrition, sports medicine and recovery services.

The risk of coronavirus is high

The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said on July 15 that there was a “zero” risk of athletes transmitting the virus to local residents.

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

At least two players from 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, withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19. And more recently, a replacement for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team also tested positive.

“Our number one priority is the health and safety of everyone,” Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, told NPR’s Ailsa Chang of this year’s Games preparations. Hirshland says his mission is to empower athletes to reach 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 largest sporting event. For example, teams should reserve their seats in the dining room in advance so that it is not overcrowded. Along with daily testing and social distancing, a “soft quarantine” has been put in place in which athletes are restricted to Olympic venues, village and designated hotels.

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

“We also believe that there are individuals who have strong beliefs or concerns, and who wanted to give everyone the opportunity to make this decision for themselves,” she said.

She says athletes who test positive for COVID-19 are replaced as they would be if they had sustained an injury, while making sure they are “healthy and safe.”

A once in a lifetime experience – for many reasons

Olympic traditions will be radically different this year. Spectators are banned from Olympic events, including the Opening Ceremony, whose lively Parade of Nations will be quieter than usual as many athletes are not even allowed to arrive in Japan until the end of the ceremony. ‘opening. Once arrived and in competition, winning athletes will also be required to drape gold, silver or bronze medals over their own necks.

Hirshland says mental health is the top priority for the organization this year, especially at a time when it is being uniquely tested. One of those challenges was the postponement of the Olympics for a year due to the pandemic.

“It was incredibly difficult for the athletes to adjust their mindset around another year of training. When you train at elite levels like this, commitment, discipline and frankly the sacrifices for a sense of normal life are big enough. To extend that for another year, it was a pretty big mountain for our athlete population to climb, “said Hirshland.

Even though the environment of the Tokyo Olympics will be different from decades of previous Games, there is still a lot of team spirit.

“We always see signs of tall towers with American flags on the ramps and a lot of team pride. It always creates that incredibly special environment to recognize that you are part of something truly global,” said Hirshland.

And we’re still likely to see many athletes hitting personal bests because of the extended training period, says Hirshland. “The resilience of Team USA is simply extraordinary,” she said. “I would tell you unequivocally: Team USA is ready.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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