Despite Positive COVID Cases, Team USA CEO Says Athletes Are Ready To Compete

Jul 19, 2021
Originally published on July 20, 2021 3:03 pm

Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are among the 11,000 athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics beginning this week on July 23.

More than 600 athletes from across the U.S. are headed to Japan to represent Team USA, and they'll have to navigate the twists and turns of this year's unusual Olympic Games.

The journey to Japan

Because of coronavirus protocols, athletes are only allowed to check into the Olympic Village five days before their scheduled events. Not only do athletes have to adjust their internal body clocks to a time zone at least 13 hours ahead, but they also have to adapt to the high temperatures and humidity of the area. Training camps for the swim and weightlifting teams have been set up in Hawaii, where conditions are closer to that of Japan; the location presents its own challenges, though, as Tokyo is still 19 hours ahead of Hawaii.

To get accustomed to the new country, many Team USA athletes are training in Tokyo outside of the Olympic Village, at a center in Setagaya operated by the U.S. Olympic committee. The training base provides nutrition services, sports medicine and recovery services.

Risk of the coronavirus looms large

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on July 15 that there was "zero" risk of athletes passing on the virus to local residents.

But coronavirus cases are already popping up throughout the Olympic Village and within Team USA. Organizers say 55 people linked to the Olympics have tested positive for coronavirus since July 1, not including athletes.

At least two players on the South African soccer team were the first athletes to test positive inside the Olympic Village. American athletes, including tennis player Coco Gauff and a member of the men's basketball team, have withdrawn after positive COVID-19 tests. And most recently, an alternate in the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team tested positive as well.

"Our number one priority is everyone's health and safety," Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, told NPR's Ailsa Chang about preparing for this year's Games. Hirshland says her mission is to empower the athletes to achieve their full potential.

COVID-19 protocols in the Olympic Village are strict after Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo during the world's biggest sports event. For instance, teams have to reserve their places in the dining hall in advance so that it's not overcrowded. Along with daily testing and social distancing, a "soft quarantine" has been implemented wherein athletes are restricted to the Olympic venues, the village and designated hotels.

According to the International Olympic Committee, more than 80% of the athletes set to compete in Tokyo will be vaccinated against COVID-19. Team USA has been encouraged to get vaccinated, although Hirshland says it's not mandatory.

"We also believe that there are some individuals who have strong beliefs or concerns, and wanted to give everyone the opportunity to make that decision for themselves," she says.

She says that athletes who test positive for COVID-19 are replaced like they would be if they had an injury, while ensuring they are "healthy and safe."

A once in a lifetime experience — for a lot of reasons

Olympic traditions will look starkly different this year. Spectators are banned from Olympic events, including the opening ceremony, whose lively Parade of Nations will be more muted than usual as many athletes aren't even allowed to arrive in Japan until after the opening ceremony concludes. Once they do arrive and compete, winning athletes will also have to drape gold, silver or bronze medals over their own necks.

Hirshland says mental health is the organization's top priority this year, especially at a time when it's being tested in unique ways. One of those challenges was the Olympics getting postponed for a year because of the pandemic.

"It was incredibly difficult for athletes to adjust their mindset around another year of training. When you're training at the elite levels like this, the commitment, the discipline, and frankly the sacrifices to any sense of a normal life are pretty significant. To extend that for another year, that was a pretty substantial mountain to climb for our athlete population," Hirshland says.

Even though the environment of the Tokyo Olympics will be different from decades of Games past, there's still plenty of team spirit.

"We're still seeing signs of tall towers with American flags down the banisters and a whole lot of team pride. It still creates that incredibly special environment of recognizing that you're part of something that is truly global," Hirshland says.

And we're still likely to see many athletes achieve personal bests because of the extended training period, Hirshland says. "The resiliency of Team USA has just been extraordinary," she says. "I would tell you unequivocally: Team USA is ready."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In just five days, the Tokyo Olympic Games are set to begin. The traditional parade of nations will, no doubt, be more muted than usual this year, as many athletes aren't even allowed to arrive in Japan until after the opening ceremony concludes. And already, COVID cases are popping up. At least two players on the South African soccer team tested positive inside the Olympic Village. U.S. athletes, including tennis player Coco Gauff and a member of the men's basketball team, have already withdrawn after positive COVID tests. And now, an alternate on the U.S. women's gymnastics team has tested positive as well.

Joining me now to talk about all of this is the CEO of Team USA, Sarah Hirshland.

Welcome.

SARAH HIRSHLAND: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

CHANG: Great to have you with us. OK. And I know that you're speaking to us from Colorado. When are you headed out to Tokyo?

HIRSHLAND: I am. I leave in less than 24 hours. So I head out first thing tomorrow morning, and I'll be on the ground there just a couple days before opening ceremony.

CHANG: OK. Well, these most recent positive COVID cases and outbreaks are already disrupting things. And I'm curious - why aren't all U.S. athletes required to be vaccinated?

HIRSHLAND: Well, you know, we believe strongly in the vaccination program. We've strongly encouraged all athletes and all members of the delegation - coaches, medical professionals, et cetera - to be vaccinated and ensured that everyone had access to the vaccinations in whatever town or training environment they were in. But we also believe that there are some individuals who have strong beliefs or concerns and wanted to give everyone the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

CHANG: And what more can you tell us about the U.S. women's gymnastics team member who tested positive?

HIRSHLAND: Well, I can't comment on any details of that. I can speak certainly that we did have an alternate athlete who did receive a positive test. And, certainly, you know, our number one priority is everyone's health and safety. The testing procedures are in place for a reason, and that is to keep athletes and coaches and staff and the citizens of our host country safe. We've seen, as you said, a small amount of positives, which really, for us, this proves that the testing is working. The system is doing what it's intended to do, and we will do everything we need to do to take care of those who have tested positive and ensure that they are healthy and safe.

CHANG: Is it possible that Simone Biles and the other U.S. gymnasts may have been exposed?

HIRSHLAND: Not in this instance.

CHANG: You're certain of that?

HIRSHLAND: Well, we are following all of the protocols and the contract tracing (ph) procedures, and at this point, we do not have any of those members in isolation or quarantine.

CHANG: OK. Well, it has been such a strange and difficult year leading up to these 2020 Games in 2021. Were most athletes on board to compete after this one-year delay, or did you hear a lot of concerns about safety and preparation for 2021?

HIRSHLAND: Certainly, it was incredibly difficult for athletes to adjust their mindset around another year of training. You know, when you're training at the elite levels like this, the commitment, the discipline and, frankly, the sacrifices to any sense of a normal life are pretty significant.

CHANG: Yeah.

HIRSHLAND: And so to extend that for another year, you know, that was a pretty substantial mountain to climb, if you will, for our athlete population. But the truth of the matter is the resiliency of Team USA has just been extraordinary. These folks - coaches, athletes, medical professionals, practitioners alike - all looked at it and said, we've got the benefit of a year; let's readjust our plans, reschedule our training regimen and get ourselves ready. And so I'm incredibly excited, and I would tell you unequivocally Team USA is ready.

CHANG: Well, can you talk about how training has looked different this year? Because I understand that athletes are only allowed to check into the Olympic Village five days before scheduled events, which seems complicated, right? Like, how is that even enough time to adjust to a new time zone?

HIRSHLAND: Well, we have the great privilege of having an on-the-ground training center in the Tokyo area, just outside Tokyo's city center, if you will. That training center is dedicated to Team USA. We've got a robust staff on the ground manning that training center in all aspects - not only the training environment, but also nutrition, sports medicine, recovery services. And many of our athletes are there now, each day, training. And so you do try to, you know, take them over, give them the opportunity to acclimate, but also give them the opportunity to train in country and to really get accustomed to the variances. One of the things you've likely heard us talk a lot about is the heat and humidity...

CHANG: Right.

HIRSHLAND: ...And the climate. And that's as important to acclimate to as the time zone, and so that's exactly what our athletes are doing right now.

CHANG: And once everyone does move into the Olympic Village, can you talk about what quarantine will look like in the village?

HIRSHLAND: Yeah, well, the protocols are certainly strict and at the high end of taking extra precautions, for obvious reasons. So, you know, as we've seen here in our country over the last year and a half, a whole lot of plexiglass being put in place...

CHANG: Yeah.

HIRSHLAND: ...Dividing, you know, seats in the dining hall, scheduling reservations of when you are able to go in and get your meals to manage the flow of individuals and ensure that nothing is overcrowded. So the environment will certainly be distinct from what it has been in past games around the athlete village. But it's still - you know, we're still seeing signs of tall towers with American flags down the banisters and a whole lot of team pride. And the interaction from other countries is obviously a physically distanced interaction, but it still creates that incredibly special environment of recognizing that you're part of something that is truly global.

CHANG: Right. I mean, there has been so much concern going into these Olympic Games, not only in terms of the health risks, but the mental health and well-being of these athletes and having to extend their training for another year. There's also been so much public opposition to these games, given all the risks involved. I guess, how do you measure success for these particular Olympic Games?

HIRSHLAND: Well, the fundamental mission of our organization is to empower these athletes to achieve their full potential, and that's really - that's where the measure of success comes in. We are likely to see a number of personal bests, performances that are the best they've ever seen, and that's when you can sit back in comfort and smile and say that when you set a goal and you achieve that goal, and it's the best you've ever done, that is the measure of success.

CHANG: Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, thank you so much for joining us today, and best of luck to you and the rest of the team.

HIRSHLAND: Well, thank you. And go Team USA.

CHANG: Go USA.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING AND MATTHEW SALTZ'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.