Like everything else, the Olympics were upended by the arrival of the global pandemic in 2020. After a year-long delay, the Tokyo Games are set to take place this year, but with health and safety still top of mind, things will look a lot different.
This article will answer questions about COVID-19 and the Olympics and is divided into two parts: the first section covers the specific health protocols that will be in place in Tokyo, and the second section details some of the impacts of the year-long suspension.
COVID Protocols in Tokyo
How is the IOC handling this?
The International Olympic Committee released a series of “playbooks” this year that cover protocols for various stakeholders including athletes, officials, media members, broadcasters, marketing partners, and sport federations. Because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, it’s expected that these playbooks will evolve too. The current guidelines may not end up being the final guidelines in place for the Olympic Games, but they serve as a framework for what to expect.
What regulations can athletes expect?
Before they even get on a flight to Tokyo, athletes are asked to monitor for symptoms and log their temperature daily for two weeks in a health-reporting app on their phone. They will also need to fill out an “activity plan” for their first 14 days in Japan describing where they will go, how they will get there, and what they will be doing.
It’s expected that athletes will get tested for COVID within 72 hours of traveling, then again when they land. They will not be required to quarantine, but during their Olympic stay, athletes will be tested every four days at the very least, and there will be temperature checks performed at venues. Any athlete who tests positive will be required to isolate and will not be allowed to compete in their event. Contact tracing will be in place, and any close contacts will be required to immediately take a COVID test. According to the playbook, the IOC is working with the Japanese health authorities to ensure that any close contact who tests negative will be allowed to compete as planned.
Masks will be mandated at nearly all times outside of competition, and social distancing will be part of the protocol as well. Hugs, handshakes and high fives are all discouraged, and the podium ceremonies could potentially be adjusted.
Although the IOC is strongly recommending that athletes get vaccinated, it will not be a requirement.
What about the Athlete Village?
Normally a lively hub of activity, the Athlete Village will have a much different feel in Tokyo. In an effort to reduce the number of people staying there, the IOC wants athletes to arrive no more than five days before their first event and leave within two days of their final competition.
This will have the knock-on effect of reducing participation in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which are likely to be scaled back.
Athletes are not permitted to leave the Village for sightseeing activities; their movement is limited to Olympic venues and other preapproved locations.
Will any fans be in attendance?
A decision was made in March that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Olympics, but organizers left option the possibility that Japanese fans might be admitted into venues at a reduced capacity. About two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, though, organizers announced that there will be no spectators at venues in Tokyo or any other areas of the country currently under new coronavirus restrictions. This will affect the majority of Tokyo 2020 venues including the Olympic Stadium, which is set to host the Opening Ceremony and most track & field events.
Some venues outside of Tokyo will be allowed to have spectators, provided they're in an area that's not subject to the same coronavirus measures. Spectators will be asked to stay away from events taking place on public roads.
The impact of the delay
How did the delay impact Olympic qualifying?
This varies by sport, but the main takeaway is that any athletes who were already qualified for Tokyo will not lose their spots. Sports that were in the middle of their qualifying period when the pandemic hit had to amend their procedures, typically pushing the end of the qualification window back by one year and rescheduling events as necessary.
This is also true of U.S. selection events like Olympic Trials. Most of the big U.S. Trials — such as swimming, diving, track & field, gymnastics, and wrestling — had not yet been held and were moved to 2021. For any Olympic Trials that did take place before the delay, those results will stand. In the case of softball, an Olympic roster was named in 2019 and will not be changed.
What about sports with age restrictions?
This decision was left up to the sport federations, but one sport where it’s likely to have an impact is women’s gymnastics. After the postponement, the International Gymnastics Federation amended its rules so that athletes born in 2005 are now eligible to compete in Tokyo; previously the cutoff was for athletes born in 2004. While this decision was controversial, it has allowed a new crop of gymnasts to attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
On the flip side, the two sports with upper age limits also updated their rules. The men’s soccer tournament, which uses under-23 players (with the exception of three over-age roster spots), is now effectively a U-24 tournament, and the maximum age for boxers is now 41 instead of 40.
What happened to the Olympic flame?
The Japanese leg of the torch relay was due to start in late March last year, but like the Olympics themselves, it was delayed until 2021. During that time, organizers faced the unprecedented task of keeping the flame lit for an entire year. It spent much of that time at a Tokyo Fire Department facility for safekeeping before going on public display at the Olympic Museum in Tokyo.
The torch relay finally got underway on March 25 and is now making its way across Japan, albeit with its own set of COVID protocols in place.