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Handling of COVID Contacts a Balancing Act at Tokyo 2020

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Photo: Reuters

By Michael Pavitt |

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach insisted yesterday that the meaning of this Olympic Games did not differ from the editions which had come before.

The German official said Tokyo 2020 would still bring the world together in “one peaceful competition”, competing and living alongside each other “in one country, in one city, in one Olympic Village.”

Just try and not get too close to each other.

Positive cases are to be expected at the Games and in the Olympic Village, as they have been across sporting events since the pandemic started.

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have acknowledged the key challenge is how they deal with these cases to ensure they do not become a cluster within the Village. This was a point underlined at today’s media conference when they were asked about the two athletes from an unnamed team who tested positive today.

Christophe Dubi, the IOC executive director for the Olympic Games, has insisted the testing process is as rigorous as it can be. The Swiss official sought to provide reassurance to an understandably sceptical population when declaring transmission between the various groups at the Village was “almost impossible”.

“Testing is the way to reduce any spread,” Dubi said. “When we have a positive case, it means action.

“We know there is no such thing as zero-risk, but at the same time the mingling and crossing of populations is very limited. With all the measures that are in place, we keep the risk to an absolute minimum level.

“What we have done since cases have appeared at the airport in the Village is make sure they are ringfenced, tested and do not provide a risk.”

Dubi has also highlighted the changes made to the Athletes’ Village to ensure athletes do not cross paths, including the restrictions on how long participants can remain prior to and after competition.

He explained yesterday that the mid-weekend of the Games remained the busiest period during the schedule, when the programmes of the largest sports of swimming and athletics overlaps, as happens at every Games.

“The Village was designed for a capacity of 17,000 people,” Dubi said. “At this moment in time we will have about 6,000 athletes and their entourages.

“Out of these 17,000, around the mark of 9,000 would be the safe condition that we have to maintain because of distancing in the common spaces, in the dining hall, making sure that every social interaction in the transport mall has enough space.”

The stress test for the Athletes’ Village is coming as the arrivals continue prior to the Opening Ceremony on Friday (July 23), before competition begins.

Flights remain an area largely outside organisers control, with athletes, officials and media representatives spending hours together in confined spaces on commercial airlines.

One positive test on arrival or following days afterwards could impact many.

Organisers had a prelude to this at the Australian Open earlier this year, when hard quarantines were enforced after positive tests were recorded on a charter flight for players into Melbourne.

A total of 72 players at the tournament had been unable to leave their hotel rooms for two weeks, which led to players missing warm-up events prior to the tournament.

Several players blamed the disruption for their early exits from the Grand Slam event.

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have opted for a different approach.

There is a clear and obvious desire not to rule athletes out of competition on the basis that they may be considered a close contact, meaning 14-day hard quarantines are essentially unworkable.

Equally organisers cannot be seen to be simply waving through athletes to compete who may have been exposed to COVID-19 due to the risk they may pose, while acknowledging the Japanese population’s understandable concerns. It was notable that the topic of close contacts was brought up on consecutive days by the local media here.

The headache has already been clear, with South Africa’s rugby sevens squad forced to isolate after a passenger on their flight to Tokyo tested positive, while the story was similar for the Russian Olympic Committee’s women’s squad after the team’s masseur tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The Croatian Olympic Committee (COC) took umbrage at the implementation of rules after slalom canoeist Matija Marinić was pinged last week for being the close contact of a passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19.

According to the organisation, Marinić and his coach Stjepan Perestegi were told to quarantine for one week after their seats on the flight were close to the infected person, albeit they claimed to have moved to sit elsewhere once on board.

“This system is simply unsustainable, what is the benefit to an athlete staying in Japan and spending time in isolation, with a lot of testing and evidence that he is not infected?” said COC President Zlatko Mateša as he argued against the decision.

“The Olympic Games have already been lost for our Matija Marinić. Who can make up for those years of training and preparation, effort and sacrifice he put in for his first Olympic appearance?

“This is a glaring example of the inability of organisers to deal with pandemic-related problems. We ask the IOC to protect athletes who prove their health status by daily tests and not to be subjected to such rigorous and unfounded measures, because then everything loses its meaning.”

The COC later announced it had achieved a “great victory of the sports spirit over a rigid administrative system” after Marinić was permitted to return to training following two days of isolation.

It was claimed that Mateša and Croatian Ambassador to Japan Dražen Hrastic’s appeals had contributed to the canoeist being permitted with a special time to train during the day. The COC claimed Canadian and Ukrainian athletes had also been allowed to train under the same circumstances, albeit it with the athletes involved in those three nations prevented from visiting the restaurant at the course.

Pierre Ducrey, IOC Olympic Games operations director, has attempted to provide reassurance for athletes and the Japanese public today.

He insisted that athletes deemed close contacts would have to follow strict rules but producing negative tests within six hours would allow them to participate in competitions.

“The close contacts have to follow not a quarantine but a strict code of rules,” Ducrey said.

“The length of this regime will be assessed according to the results of the daily tests.

“Only when the experts assess that this person is no more a risk to others can they return to a normal regime of behaviour with the rest of his team.”

Given that 18,000 people have arrived so far this July for the Games, with an estimated 59,000 accredited personnel expected to be involved, there is still a long way to go.

It will remain to be seen whether the protocols surrounding close contacts are stringent enough to avoid any potential outbreaks, while ensuring athletes will not miss competitions despite not having tested positive themselves.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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