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A gymnast's positive COVID test puts the fragility of the Tokyo Games on early display

·Columnist
·4 min read
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So it wasn’t Simone Biles. At least not this time, but no one can truly be sure when the next round of Olympic COVID tests come in.

News broke late Monday in Japan that a member of the United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team had tested positive for the virus, thus putting her participation in the Games in significant jeopardy.

The Opening Ceremony is Friday. The gymnastics competition begins Sunday.

The initial report said it was a teenager, thus ruling out the 24-year-old Biles, the biggest American star in the Olympics and a centerpiece of NBC’s coverage out of Tokyo the next few weeks.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee soon revealed the athlete was an alternate on the team and thus unlikely to compete (although the way COVID is working, who knows).

That doesn’t dampen the disappointment for them. Or the stakes for everyone else.

"The health and safety of our athletes, coaches and staff is our top priority," the USOPC said in a statement. "We can confirm that an alternate on the women’s artistic gymnastics team tested positive for COVID-19. In alignment with local rules and protocols, the athlete has been transferred to a hotel to quarantine. Out of respect for the individual’s privacy, we cannot provide more information at this time."

Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, Jade Carey, Kayla DiCello (replacement), Kara Eaker (replacement), Leanne Wong (replacement), and Emma Malabuyo (replacement) pose after being selected to the 2021 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team following the Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials at America’s Center on June 27, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(L-R) Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, Jade Carey, Kayla DiCello (replacement), Kara Eaker (replacement), Leanne Wong (replacement), and Emma Malabuyo (replacement) (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The team is training in the city of Inzai, which reported the positive. The four alternates on the team are Kayla DiCello, Kara Eaker, Emma Malabuyo and Leanne Wong.

Acknowledging the caveat that all people, let alone Olympic athletes, are equal, and anyone testing positive for COVID, let alone on the eve of the Games they have spent their life training for, is just a terrible, terrible development, and not just for their immediate health. And well, for most fans ... at least it wasn’t Simone.

But for how long? And not just with America’s Golden Girl, but these Games in general. This is just the latest in a quickly growing list of positive cases, from South African soccer to U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff.

How much close contact was there for the gymnastics team’s training? How much time did she spend with any/all of her teammates?

Just how relentless is this Delta variant that is causing cases to spike not just in Japan, but around the world?

The gymnast was reportedly fully vaccinated in May and presumably taking every precaution possible given the stakes. It didn’t matter.

COVID came for her. And it’s coming for the entire Olympics.

Sports has battled this since the coronavirus overtook the world nearly a year and a half ago. Testing and tracing protocols have sidelined star players, teams, major championship tournaments, even parts or all of entire seasons.

The Olympics were pushed back a full year, but Tokyo organizers are in no position to breathe easy. As long as testing continues, positive cases will pop up.

And this isn’t an event that can be rescheduled on the fly. The Olympics are the sprint (about 16 days of competition) after a marathon (four, or in this case, five years of preparation).

There is almost no time for retesting, sorting out false positives or dealing with even a couple days of protocols. If it hits, it will wipe out eligibility. There are no delays, no do-overs.

The Games are walking a tightrope here, with athletes understandably scared to be near anyone, yet by the nature of sport nearly required to be near others — teammates, coaches, opponents.

Thousands are staying together inside the Olympic Village.

How is this going to work? Can this work? Should this even be attempted in this manner?

No one knows. For now, America’s most anticipated athlete wasn’t the name behind the bombshell headline. All cases are terrible, one of those alternates is both dealing with a virus and a broken heart, but you can’t blame NBC execs for exhaling.

For now, at least. Anything is possible and this thing hasn’t even started.

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