The Olympic Opening Ceremony will roll on amid COVID. Will any athletes go?

·3 min read

TOKYO — The Strangest Olympics Ever will officially begin here Friday with a strange Opening Ceremony at a mostly empty 68,000-seat stadium.

There will be no fans; some journalists and photographers; some Olympic officials and dignitaries, but not many. The big question: Will there be athletes?

At most Games, thousands of athletes and sports personnel march in the Parade of Nations, a country-by-country procession that is, for some, a highlight of the Olympic experience. Many athletes choose not to attend, for a variety of reasons — hours of standing isn't ideal prep for competitions a day or two later. But in 2016, Michael Phelps led a throng of smiling Americans into the Estadio Maracana for what looked like party.

Five years later, everything will look different.

Of Great Britain's 376 competing athletes, roughly 30 will attend.

Australia will send around 50 of its 488-person team, and New Zealand 20 of its 211.

Team USA will enter Japan's National Stadium third-to-last in the parade, and its delegation will almost surely be the largest at the ceremony. A U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesman told Yahoo Sports that "more than 230" of Team USA's 613 athletes were planning to march behind flag bearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez.

Those numbers, though, will pale in comparison to previous Summer Olympics.

The number of athletes participating in this year's Opening Ceremony is expected to be way down from past Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
The number of athletes participating in this year's Opening Ceremony is expected to be way down from past Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

And the reason, in short, is COVID. Some athletes aren't even in Tokyo yet, unable to arrive more than five days before their respective competitions. Others have simply chosen not to attend, and why would they?

The virus has already infiltrated the Olympic Village. American athletes have tested positive before and after departure for Japan. And while vaccinated Olympians are hardly at risk of serious illness, they have more incentive than almost anybody to avoid large gatherings like the Opening Ceremony. If they test positive, their Games are over. Their dreams are dashed. The moment they've spent years striving for is, in an instant, gone. No exceptions, no recourse.

The Opening Ceremony, of course, is part of that moment, and some athletes plan to soak it in. But much of the joy at past Opening Ceremonies stemmed from the festive atmosphere. This year, there will be no spectators twirling flags and waving. There will be no friends and family. Tokyo organizers will use technology to try to replicate some of the traditional experience — there's talk of drones and CGI, for example — but much of the spectacle will be made for TV.

And so, many Olympians will watch on TV (8 p.m. local time, 7 a.m. ET, NBC).

Organizers haven't said how many of the roughly 10,900 competing athletes they're anticipating, but expectations are lower than in 2016 or 2012. Coaches and officials won't be involved. Dignitary numbers have also been reduced. Kyodo News reported that roughly 15 world leaders would attend, down from roughly 40 five years ago in Rio.

As for the Ceremony content, officials have touted it as moving and technologically spectacular. But nobody in Japan wants to be associated with it because of the Games' widespread unpopularity. Earlier this week, multiple powerful Japanese businessmen declined their invites. Toyota, after pulling its Olympics-related TV ads, announced that its top executive wouldn't attend.

Perhaps it will still be spectacular. But COVID has upped the risk, even if ever so slightly, and sucked the allure out of the occasion. More than ever before, Olympians are focused on the reason they are here: their sports. Not the pageantry and extracurriculars that come with the gig.

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