Opinion: Olympic leaders' nightmare scenario has become reality in Tokyo

TOKYO – As predictable as the news is, it’s still stunning. An American female gymnast who is an alternate on the wildly popular U.S. Olympic gymnastics team has tested positive for the coronavirus. Four days before the opening ceremony of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Games’ nightmare scenario has become a reality.

Last year, COVID-19 altered the course of these Games, forcing their postponement for a year. Now it has attached itself to the U.S. team, even though the four alternates on the women’s gymnastics team have been for the most part totally separate from the main team, including superstar Simone Biles, since they all traveled to Japan. 

Gymnast Kara Eaker, 18, was the athlete who tested positive, coach Al Fong confirmed in a text message to USA TODAY Sports on Monday night. She is quarantining in a hotel, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said. 

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The coronavirus also is in the Olympic Village. Four cases have been confirmed there: two South African men’s soccer players, a South African men’s soccer team video analyst and a Czech male beach volleyball player.

So are these going to be known as the COVID Olympics? How can they not be?

Kara Eaker smiles after landing her dismount off the balance beam during the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials at America’s Center on June 25, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri.

Olympic organizers had hoped against hope that the pandemic would not affect the Tokyo Games any more than it already had. Now their worst fears have been realized. They could not keep the virus out of the village, nor could they keep it out of the marquee American Olympic team. The virus is everywhere, so of course it’s here too, way too close for comfort now for the U.S. team.

For 16 months, we’ve watched sports try their best to carry on in the midst of a global pandemic. Some have succeeded; the bubblized NBA and WNBA immediately come to mind.

Others have not. High school, college and professional teams have had games canceled, seasons interrupted and players quarantined. VCU men’s basketball, the Washington Nationals and North Carolina State baseball appear on that list.

The Tokyo Olympics are relying on hundreds of quasi-bubbles across this massive city to try to keep more than 10,000 athletes safe. But this isn’t one team or one league or even one sport. This is the largest regularly scheduled peacetime gathering of the world. More than 200 countries participate. It’s full of young people who are fearless in life, which is a great quality for their sport, not so much for avoiding COVID-19.

While there always is concern for those who test positive, there might be an even greater worry: contact-tracing knocking an athlete out of his or her event, often a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now that the coronavirus is in the Olympic Village, and within the confines of the U.S. team, is contact tracing next?

I asked Brian McCloskey, chair of an independent expert panel advising the International Olympic Committee on COVID-19, what he thought the odds were that an Olympic athlete would be contact-traced out of his or her event.

“I think it’s possible,” was his less-than-reassuring reply. “It’s something that could happen. We try very hard to make sure it doesn’t happen. We manage as well as we can.” 

The logical follow-up: Is the village safe?

“Yes,” he said confidently. 

We’ll see. He’s the health expert, but we’ve watched this disease up close for 16 months, so we know it too. We are aware of how it spreads, particularly among the unvaccinated, which is important because vaccines are not mandatory at these Games. We can speculate forever on what might have been had vaccines been required, but they are not, so here we are.

All these athletes, together on buses, in dorm rooms, in hallways, in venues. They’re wearing masks, or at least they are supposed to be. Still, the coronavirus is very much out there among them, and as we are finding out, it’s as unrelenting an opponent as they’ll ever face.