11,000 Athletes, No Outbreak: How the Tokyo Olympics Dodged COVID

The Olympic bubble in Tokyo was remarkably safe. China, which will soon host the Winter Games, took note.
August 13, 2021, 9:13am
tokyo 2020, olympics, sports, athletes, covid, beijing, winter games, pandemic
During the Tokyo Games, staff held up “masks on” signs to indicate when an athlete should mask up. Photo: Frank Hoermann / SVEN SIMON/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Before thousands of international athletes and reporters even landed in Tokyo, the Olympics were seen as a horror story waiting to happen.

What’s essential in a mega sporting event—confined spaces, crowds and close contacts—also makes fertile ground for COVID-19. Apprehensive and alarmed, the Japanese public overwhelmingly opposed hosting the Tokyo Games. When the time came, everyone bit their fingernails, bracing for headlines of a mass outbreak in the Olympic Village, or even worse, an Olympic variant.

But as some 11,000 Olympic athletes packed up after two weeks of competitions, organizers breathed a sigh of relief that their worst nightmare never materialized. 

Within the Olympic Village, only 32 people tested positive for COVID-19 since July 1, an infection rate dramatically lower than that of Tokyo or Japan.

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Those who objected to the games cited a potential mass outbreak as their main concern, but Tokyo 2020 proved to be remarkably safe even as the city reported record rises in cases outside the walls of the athletes village.

What Tokyo did right—and wrong—will help inform public health measures at other international events to be held during the pandemic, such as the Beijing Winter Games just 6 months away.

tokyo 2020, olympics, sports, athletes, covid, beijing, winter games, pandemic

About 30,000 people spat into plastic vials daily at the Tokyo Olympics for COVID-19 tests. Photo: AP Photo/Hiro Komae

In the worst-case scenario, the February games could reignite outbreaks in the capital of the world’s most populous country. China, keenly aware of this risk, took notes on the unintended COVID-19 experiment in Tokyo, dispatching 34 officials to the games to learn best practices.

To host the Olympics during a pandemic, Tokyo practically created a bubble in the city center and, within it, applied social-distancing measures that earned the games the nickname “no-fun Olympics.”

Everyone must keep 2 meters of distance from one another, effectively banning hugs, high fives, and handshakes. Overseas personnel were banned from leaving their designated residences, unless it was to attend a competition or practice.

Attendees were also expected to wear masks at all times, except during meals. Athletes were allowed to remove their coverings during interviews, but journalists must use boom mics—microphones attached to the end of a pole. Olympic staff held up “masks on” and “masks off” signs to remind athletes when to cover their faces.

Residents of the athletes village were tested daily. All international athletes were tested twice before they left their home countries, and again upon arrival in Tokyo, and then every day for the first three days of their stay. A positive result meant immediate isolation.

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Ahead of the Winter Games, Beijing said it was redesigning 39 Olympic venues. New facilities will be installed to ensure athletes have nearly no contact with others, such as reporters, spectators, and volunteers. A majority of those involved in the games will also be sealed off entirely from the general public.

tokyo 2020, olympics, sports, athletes, covid, beijing, winter games, pandemic

The Olympic Village in Hebei province for the Beijing Winter Games in 2022. Photo: Anna Ratkoglo / Sputnik via AP

But the lessons of Tokyo were not strictly about eliminating risks, but managing them. While it was possible to keep thousands of disciplined athletes on site, a much greater number of people involved in the games were not players.

Many volunteers and media personnel were allowed to return home after work. They made up the bulk of positive tests associated with Olympic personnel—two-thirds of those 540 cases were Japanese residents. They most likely contracted the virus from outside the Olympic Village as Tokyo experienced its worst surge in cases since the start of the pandemic.

But there were obvious steps that the Tokyo Games’ organizers could have taken to further reduce risks, especially given the contagiousness of the delta variant of the virus, experts say.

“Requiring that all athletes and workers be vaccinated (and waiting out the time period necessary to develop immunity) would have been a step the organizers could have taken,” Sara Merwin, an epidemiologist, told VICE World News. 

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While the International Olympic Committee heavily encouraged participants to get vaccinated, inoculation was not mandatory. Olympic organizers said 85 percent of those who stayed at the athletes village received jabs, as well as 70 to 80 percent of media representatives

Event organizers must also take into account the possibility of people breaking the rules. 

After the closing ceremony of the Olympics on Sunday, some Japanese outlets reported sightings of athletes in the city, walking around Akihabara, a popular neighborhood famous for its anime and manga stores, and shopping. They were supposed to stay within the athletes village until their flight home. 

And in the heat of the games, some athletes flouted social-distancing rules to embrace and shake hands with their opponents. During the men’s high jump final on August 1, two best friends, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, hugged each other after they shared a gold medal. What could you do about that?

tokyo 2020, olympics, sports, athletes, covid, beijing, winter games, pandemic

Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi hug each other after deciding to share the gold medal. Photo: Oliver Weiken/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Beijing has not announced the full extent of its public health measures for the Winter Games, but they are expected to be more restrictive and expansive than those in Tokyo 2020. 

Some Chinese doctors have recommended mandatory inoculation for all participants. At the end of the games, everyone involved—athletes, workers, reporters—will be required to either leave China or endure weeks of isolation in quarantine centers, the New York Times reported. At the Tokyo Games, local workers and volunteers were required to get tested regularly but did not have to go into isolation at the end of the games.

Strict quarantine measures during the Beijing Games would be in line with China’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. The country has threatened to jail superspreaders, and severe quarantine restrictions have left some without food and jobs. Earlier this month, more than 30 officials were fired or punished for failing to stem a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

What might make China’s job a little easier though is that, unlike the Summer Games, many events at the Beijing Olympics will be held outdoors, which is likely to reduce infection risks. 

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But even if rules within the Olympic bubble are properly followed, Beijing must also consider the potential unintended consequences outside this enclave, which the Japanese government has been faulted for failing at.

The Olympics coincided with the worst surge in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo and the rest of Japan. The day of the opening ceremony, Tokyo recorded 1,359 new COVID-19 cases. Three weeks later, that number swelled past 5,000, a record for the metropolis. Toshikazu Abe, the director of emergency care at Tsukuba Memorial Hospital, said the Olympics could have indirectly caused a spike in the city.

“Many are tired of self-quarantining. The games are being used as an excuse—if the country can host the Olympics, then they can justify going out,” he told VICE World News.

Abe expects the pandemic to get worse in Japan, but he believes the Olympic organizers did what they could to stave off a catastrophe.

“There will inevitably be some cases within the bubble, as some were unaware the virus was incubating within them. Even so, I believe it was a success,” he said. “People, including us doctors, were thrilled to watch athletes. It’s been all COVID-19 news recently, so it was a nice break and Olympians gave us courage.”

As the pandemic drags on, growing quarantine fatigue could limit policymakers’ options. What officials must calculate now is whether the benefits of fun outweigh the costs.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.

Correction: A previous version of the story misstated Sara Merwin’s institutional affiliation. We regret the error.