Friday (July 23) marked the beginning of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The four-hour opening ceremony was rather typical in some regards—the cauldron was lit, the athletes paraded in proud representation of their countries, and the five iconic Olympic rings stood as backdrop to hundreds of dancers and performers. However, the highly anticipated event, which is now over a year late, also looked a lot different than usual. Instead of packed stands, the ceremony played out in-person for only a select few diplomats, sponsors, and officials. Outside, protestors gathered in a stand against the Games. A moment of silence hung in the air for those lost during the pandemic. While exciting and celebratory, the opening ceremony ultimately suffered a more subdued tone than usual.
This is also in part because at least 24 athletes—those who had trained nonstop and dedicated years of their lives for this one competition—were missing from the ceremony completely, barred from participating. Due to positive Covid tests, these individuals (and, in some cases, chunks of teams) have to sit out the entirety of the Games in isolation. These include Coco Gauff (U.S. women’s tennis), Taylor Crabb (U.S. men’s beach volleyball), Candy Jacobs (Dutch skateboarder), Kara Eaker (U.S. gymnastics alternate), and Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi (South African soccer players).
While every benched athlete who has spoken up thus far has seemed accepting of their lot, they’ve also expressed a fully understandable disappointment and heartache.
In a tweet following her positive test, Gauff, a rising star at just 17, wrote: “I am so disappointed to share the news that I have tested positive for COVID and won’t be able to play in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It has always been a dream of mine to represent the USA at the Olympics, and I hope there will be many more chances for me to make this come true in the future.”
Amber Hill, representing Britain as the world’s number one-ranked skeet shooter, didn’t even make it on the plane to Tokyo. “After five years of training and preparation, I’m absolutely devastated to say that last night I received a positive Covid-19 test, meaning I’ve had to withdraw from Team GB’s shooting team,” said the gold-medalist hopeful in a statement. “I will be back from this, but right now I need some time to reflect and take in what has happened.”
With daily saliva tests required for everyone involved in the Games, the threat of being the next to have what could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity cut woefully short hangs over the Olympic Village. Many athletes have already been flagged as having been in close contact, and dozens of others heavily involved in official capacities, such as coaches, have tested positive as well. While masks are required at all times and for everyone, while multiple negative tests were needed to even board planes to Japan, and while some exhibit no symptoms, it seems as though every day another person—or three—has had to leave their hard work and dreams behind.
Since for the most part the Games are just getting started, it’s hard to say how this trend will affect individual sports and competitions. If a singles tennis player tests positive in the middle of the tournament, for instance, there’s no clear alternative like there would be if it were one member of a volleyball team. While Olympic officials have set a few standard guidelines for players having to drop out, such as them not being “disqualified” but instead receiving a less jarring “did not start” designation, the whole thing is extremely tricky.
The pressure is on Tokyo to do the “right thing” with the entire world—and all of its differing opinions—watching and waiting to see how it will all play out. Just like with the benched Olympians, it’s certainly not a position to envy.