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COVID-19 Cases Are Rising As Tokyo Olympics Get Underway


The Tokyo Olympics begin this week with some early bird competitions just hours from now and the official opening ceremony on Friday. It all comes a year late and without any of the fans or the fanfare that traditionally accompany the games. Dozens of coronavirus cases have been recorded among the athletes, also coaches and staff. And people in Japan are increasingly mad at their government for the decision to go ahead with the games in the first place. New York Times' Tokyo bureau chief Motoko Rich joins us now from Tokyo.

Hey there.

MOTOKO RICH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Glad you are with us. OK, let's start with this cluster of COVID cases reported among athletes who've already arrived for the games. It includes several members of the U.S. team. What's the latest you're hearing on this?

RICH: Well, we heard on Monday that there were two alternates on the women's gymnastics team, one who had tested positive and one who was a close contact. So they were both sequestered. There also have been a couple of members of the South African football team. And then there are also dozens of people related to the Olympics, some of whom are residents of Japan. In fact, more people who are residents of Japan related to the Olympics have tested positive than people come in from overseas.

But it's certainly worrying because we had originally been told by Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, that there was - he used the words zero risk to the Japanese public from the coronavirus. And there's been a little bit of backtracking on that wording with other IOC officials saying, look. We can't - we knew this was inevitable. There were going to be some cases. We can't have COVID-free, but we can have COVID-safe.

KELLY: What does the Olympic Village look like this year, by the way? I mean, typically it's, you know, athletes in dorms. But people are mingling and mixing and hanging out.

RICH: Well, that's not allowed.

KELLY: Yeah.

RICH: Well, that's definitely not allowed. I mean, reporters aren't allowed to roam around, either. But we know that there's a special dedicated dining room that I think they separated into two floors. Nobody's supposed to be going out and socializing at all in an effort to contain the virus. People are having - athletes have to get tested every day. So it's a really different atmosphere than it would be under normal circumstances, where everybody's together and there are lots of crowds and there are lots of parties. That's not happening this time.

KELLY: Tell us a little bit more about the backlash in Japan. I saw a poll over the weekend that showed 87% of respondents in Japan are worried that the Olympic Games are happening at all in their country during the pandemic. As you interview people, as you hear from people, what kind of things are they telling you?

RICH: The problem in Japan is that although it's a rich country, the vaccination rollout has been very slow. So a little over 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. And so cases are rising in Tokyo. So not only do you have tens of thousands of people coming into a country that's basically been closed to overseas travelers for over a year while, at the same time, local cases are rising. So there's a lot of anxiety. I think there's also just sort of - people are fed up and angry at their government for giving in and investing all this time and energy into the games rather than in restoring the country to normalcy.

KELLY: Yeah.

RICH: So there's a lot of anxiety and even anger, I would say.

KELLY: I gather - from the department of things you really didn't need on top of everything else, it's also really hot. They're having to relocate some of the events because Tokyo is unseasonably hot for people trying to compete outside.

RICH: That's right. I mean, in some respects, that's something that was - the COVID is on top of that. The heat was always going to be a problem. It's hot, and it's also super-humid. I mean, just walk outside, and you start to sweat, never mind if you're trying to...

KELLY: Run a marathon.

RICH: Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah.

RICH: So even before COVID, they made the decision to move the marathon up to Sapporo, which tends to be a little bit cooler during the summer. But there's still lots of events here. And just on Monday, one of my colleagues went over to a training for the beach volleyball, and they were spraying the sand with water because it was too hot for people to even go on there to train.

KELLY: Oh, like, to step onto with bare feet. Oh, my gosh.

RICH: Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah. So last question. Tell us what to look for as the games get underway. I'm wondering; specifically what does an opening ceremony look like in the pandemic Olympics, given all of the restrictions you've just been telling us about?

RICH: Right - fantastic question. I mean, they're keeping the details very much under close wraps, but they have leaked that they're not going to allow more than a thousand people into a stadium that has a capacity for over 70,000. We've already heard from a number of countries that they're not sending dignitaries. We've heard rumors but not confirmed that maybe only one or two athletes per delegation will be allowed to march. So there's a lot of sort of swirling issues around the opening ceremonies. It doesn't sound like something anyone's yet excited about.

KELLY: That is Motoko Rich of The New York Times giving us a little preview of what to watch for with the Olympics kicking off in Tokyo this week.

Thank you.

RICH: Thank you so much.


Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.