Less than three months before the Tokyo Olympics are set to open amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, increased testing was the biggest takeaway of the “Playbook” for athletes released by organizers on Wednesday.
While shy on some details, and still raising questions around the safety measures meant to protect the 15,000 athletes plus coaches and officials travelling to Tokyo for the Olympics and Paralympics, the increased testing was welcome news to Athletics Canada high performance director Simon Nathan.
“That’s a very sensible piece,” Nathan said. “It will be a pain and very disruptive on the ground, but in the big picture I definitely feel it’s a safer and a tighter plan.”
All participants must pass two COVID-19 tests before leaving their home country. They’ll be tested upon arrival, and then athletes, and those in close proximity to athletes will be tested daily.
More frequent testing is beneficial in eliminating false positives and their “knock-on” consequences, Nathan said.
“Everybody they’ve had contact with has to lock down, it takes a long time to unwind that piece, and so many people are involved (in the event of a positive test),” he said. “And I think testing more regularly just mathematically removes the chances of false positives.”
The 60-page book, released by the International Olympic Committee and local organizers, stressed that athletes will face tight restrictions in Tokyo, which came under a third state of emergency this week amid surging COVID-19 cases in Japan. Athletes and other participants, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated, must sign a pledge to follow the Playbook rules.
“If that is not complied with, there will be a certain level of penalty,” Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee, said.
Muto hinted at loss of credential and expulsion for breaking the rules.
“These plans really depend on everybody exactly following the rules,” Nathan said. “You can’t guarantee that, but most people have good intentions.”
Among other highlights:
— Athletes will be restricted to just the athletes village, and their competition and training venues in an effort to build a “bubble” environment.
— Participants must avoid public transportation and travel only by dedicated vehicles.
— Participants must eat only in specified locations, including catering facilities at Games venues and the dining hall of the Athletes Village.
— Participants won’t need to quarantine for 14 days in Japan, but must register a detailed schedule for that period, plus download a tracking app.
— A decision of venue capacity will be made in June. International fans, including athlete family members, have already been banned from attending.
— Athletes must wear masks virtually everywhere but on the field of competition, including on the medal podium.
Race walker Evan Dunfee called the measure good and robust, “and will no doubt reduce some of the risk. But that risk still remains exceedingly high in my opinion.
“Obviously that is a risk that I am OK with personally because I am going to go regardless,” said Dunfee, a world bronze medallist. “But it still leaves me with wondering what more could possibly be done save for cancelling to further reduce the risk, and whether that isn’t the appropriate option.”
Andrea Seccafien, who’s qualified to run the 5,000 metres, said issues with meals and transportation raised red flags for her. She said the fact athletes will still eat at a common dining hall at the village, and ride buses together to events, “is concerning.”
“I also don’t really know how you control the movement of 15,000 people,” she said.
Athletes who contract COVID at the Games will be isolated in a hotel set up for that purpose, or hospitalized if necessary.
“The consequences for the people that do have COVID, they’re just brutal,” Nathan said. “You’re just gone. And not only are you out of the Games, but you’re out of the Games in Japan, where you’ll be treated wonderfully well in a Japanese hospital, but strange foods, strange language, strange medical system, not having your friends and family around you for an unknown period of time is frightening, devastating.
“That (reality) has been there all the time, but it’s just becoming black and white really of how awful that situation would be.”
Vaccines remain a huge concern, both in Japan, where only about one per cent of the population has been vaccinated, and for other countries travelling to Tokyo. The IOC has suggested that all national Olympic organizations request vaccination priority for athletes.
Canada’s position remains firm — it will not cut in line.
“We maintain that Canada’s front-line workers and most vulnerable populations should be the priority for vaccinations,” David Shoemaker, the CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said in a statement. “With the growing numbers of vaccines available to Canadians, we are hopeful that athletes will have access to them prior to Tokyo, which would provide an additional layer of protection to the significant countermeasures that have been put in place.”
Australia announced Wednesday that its athletes and support staff — about 2,000 people — will be given priority for vaccines. New Zealand announced last month that athletes competing in events of national significance could get early access to vaccines.
Nathan said It would be “fantastic” if Canadian athletes are vaccinated before the Games.
“Good for the Japanese population, because we’re going into Japan as guests. And good for the team coming back to Canada as well, because there’ll be several thousand people who’ve mixed with every nation on Earth, coming back to communities across the whole of Canada. So for all those people, it will be fantastic if we get vaccinated.”
Gar Leyshon, coach of Olympic decathlon bronze medallist Damian Warner, pointed out the Canadian team – Canada hopes to send 400 to 425 athletes to the Olympics – is a small fraction of the country.
“If you are going to have the Olympics and send a team, then vaccinate them, it is literally 0.00002 per cent of the population,” said Leyshon. “And do we really want unvaccinated athletes returning to Canada from the biggest super-spreader event in history?”
Seccafien, who is training in Flagstaff, Ariz., has already received her first vaccine in the U.S., and expects to be fully vaccinated before Tokyo.
Like Dunfee, the 30-year-old runner said there’s no question that she’ll go to Tokyo regardless.
“I”m just hoping that the IOC is putting together the safest Games that they can,” she said. “I’m also obviously going to go. That’s not a question. I don’t play golf, I don’t play tennis where those athletes could potentially not go, because there’s (less riding on the Olympics). We have to go.
“I’m just trying to prepare the best that I can so that I can actually make this worthwhile. I don’t want to go there, run badly, and be completely stressed out.”
The IOC and Tokyo organizers have vowed to push ahead with the Games, despite the state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and several other areas.
Polls have shown the majority — 70 to 80 per cent — of Japanese residents think the Olympics should be cancelled or postponed.
Tokyo recorded more than 900 new cases on Wednesday, its highest level in three months, as new variants are popping up in the country.
“Yes, the situation is very difficult,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said. “We are fighting the invisible enemy.”
Muto was asked if another postponement was possible. In the last few weeks renewed questions about cancellation have also popped up. The IOC long ago ruled out another postponement.
“Can you really take the time for another postponement?” Muto asked rhetorically. “It’s not just a matter of taking the time, the organizers would have to prepare once again after having already spent years to prepare. It is not something that can be done that casually.”
Muto pointed out the impossibility, if postponed, of securing the Athletes Village, which is a massive housing project on Tokyo Bay that has already been partially sold off.
A final version of the Playbook will be released in June.
The Olympics open July 23 and the Paralympics on Aug. 24.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press