Opinion: Next few days loom large for US gymnasts after alternate's positive COVID test
TOKYO – The biggest challenge to the gold rush for Simone Biles and the U.S. women comes even before the competition begins.
The news that alternate Kara Eaker tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday following a training camp with Biles and the rest of the Olympic team means there will be a nervous eye on test results the next few days. Biles is the biggest thing going at the Tokyo Olympics, heavily favored to win, well, everything, and the U.S. women are expected to cruise to a third consecutive team title.
They have to be able to compete, however.
If the last few days have reminded us of anything, it’s that the COVID pandemic is far from over, and being fully vaccinated does not give someone an impenetrable shield. Eaker said after last month’s Olympic Trials that she was fully vaccinated, and yet the 18-year-old is now quarantined, as is her training mate, Leanne Wong, who was deemed a close contact.
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USA Gymnastics says that its protocols at the training camp created a barrier between the alternates and the Olympic team members. Alternates roomed with alternates, sat on the opposite side of the room during meals and did not train on the same apparatuses at the same time as the Olympians.
Masks were to be worn at all times except when athletes were eating, actively training or in their individual rooms.
Those protocols seemed to have worked, because Biles and the rest of the team – Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum, as well as individual competitors Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner – were not forced to isolate as close contacts. The six women were posting photos from the Olympic Village as news of Eaker’s positive test was breaking, in fact, and did so again after their training session Tuesday.
Competition begins Sunday.
“The entire delegation continues to be vigilant, and will maintain strict protocols while they are in Tokyo,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement Monday.
But the delay between exposure and when someone can test positive means it will be a few days until Biles and the rest of the Olympic team are completely in the clear.
Given how dicey COVID makes everything, you have to wonder exactly what USA Gymnastics was thinking by having the alternates train alongside the Olympic team. At recent Games, alternates would be sent to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s training site or some other location, and the closest they’d get to the team members was when they watched the competition from the stands.
Yet USA Gymnastics decided that now, when athletes can get contract traced out of the Olympics, was a great time to treat the entire delegation as one big, happy family. Alternates and team members alike training together, eating together and staying in the same hotel – what could go wrong!
Yes, the entire Olympic women's gymnastics team is fully vaccinated, and all athletes are being tested daily. But as Eaker’s positive test shows, no precautions are too great to take, especially given what’s at stake.
Should Biles defend her Olympic title – and given that she hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013, that’s a pretty good bet – she will be the first woman to do so in more than 50 years. Biles will also be favored to win individual golds on vault, floor exercise and balance beam, which would make her the first U.S. woman to win five gold medals at a single Games.
Lee will be a favorite to win the uneven bars gold, and the Americans are so deep that they are likely to pick up a second medal on vault, floor and beam. (It would be even more, but the International Gymnastics Federation only allows two gymnasts per country to compete in the individual finals.)
But, sure, go ahead and put all of that at risk with a larger-than-necessary traveling party.
This is not to suggest that any of the gymnasts are acting irresponsibly or not taking the protocols seriously. But the rising threat from the Delta variant, which is more contagious than other strains of COVID-19, means you could do everything right and still be infected.
Even if you’re vaccinated.
As one of the star attractions in Tokyo, Biles and the U.S. women were prepared for the world to be curious about every last detail about them. Little did they know that would include the results of their COVID tests, too.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.