At long last, the Tokyo Olympics are set to begin this week. Athletes who waited an extra year to get to the Summer Games can finally enjoy all the traditions that make the Olympics special: marching elbow-to-elbow in the Opening Ceremony, sharing meals in the village dining hall, shaking their rivals' hands in a show of global unity.
Wait, though. The athletes' playbook — a 70-page manual of COVID-19 protocols — says hugs and handshakes aren't allowed. Athletes should eat alone, or at least 6 feet apart. Avoid crowded spaces. No singing or chanting to support your teammates. Tourist areas and restaurants? Strictly off limits.
"The only thing I'm worried about is being locked in our rooms,'' St. Paul gymnast Suni Lee said. "I don't really know what we're going to do. We're going to have to bring board games or something.''
When the Olympics were postponed in March 2020, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers hoped the pandemic would be mostly under control by now. A year after the original start date, the Summer Games will begin with Tokyo under a COVID state of emergency, infections surging and a nationwide vaccination rate of about 20 percent, ranking 61st in the world. On Friday, a test turned up the first COVID-positive person in the Olympic Village.
Concern that the Olympics could become a superspreader event — or even give rise to a new COVID variant — has put Japanese citizens on edge. It also will fundamentally change much of the experience for more than 11,000 athletes from 205 countries.
Their stays in the Olympic Village will be cut short, with athletes asked to leave within 48 hours after their event concludes. No families or friends are permitted to travel to Japan. Because spectators are banned, athletes will compete in a relatively sterile environment, without the color and noise and energy of a typical Olympics.
A handful of athletes have dropped out of the Games because of COVID concerns or the strict rules. But many who weathered the long delay are willing to do whatever it takes to make the Tokyo Games happen.
"We're in a better place than we were a year ago,'' said Alise (Post) Willoughby of St. Cloud, a three-time Olympian in BMX racing. "I know [Olympic organizers] will do everything in their power to provide an absolutely safe environment for everyone.
"They're probably going to have to keep us in our bubble more than ever. It will be more of a TV spectacle without having the fans there. But hopefully it can be a bit of light during a dark time.''
Worried about more than sports
Last week, Lee and her coach, Jess Graba, were trying to navigate the complex web of requirements for travel to Japan. The state of emergency that began Monday —the fourth declared in the past 16 months — will run through the Olympics and beyond.
The Japanese public remains wary of hosting the Summer Games; an Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed only 22 percent of those surveyed believe the Olympics should go on as scheduled. The playbooks and other measures are meant to reassure citizens that the Olympics can proceed safely, despite rising infections and the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant in Japan. But some mandatory health-reporting apps have not worked well, and the rules can be confusing.
"It's stressful," Graba said. "It will be nice when we only have to worry about gymnastics.''
Lee's family planned to travel to Tokyo to watch her compete. That changed in March, when fans from outside Japan — including athletes' children, spouses and parents — were barred. Earlier this month, the ban was extended to all spectators, despite initial plans to admit some Japanese fans.
That means Lee's dad, John, will have to give Suni his usual pre-competition pep talk over the phone. And Cathy and Tom Condie won't make their long-planned trip to Japan.
The parents of climber Kyra Condie of Shoreview, the couple will spend part of the Games in Orlando with other parents of Olympians, in a trip arranged by NBC. They will be back home when Kyra competes on Aug. 4, hosting a watch party at 3 a.m. in a hotel conference room.
"We're going [to Orlando] for Opening Ceremonies, but we'll be in Minnesota for Kyra's competition, to watch with family and friends,'' Cathy Condie said. "We are so excited to cheer for Kyra, even if it's from Minnesota.''
The Condies' party could be louder than the climbing venue. According to Molly Solomon, executive producer of NBC's Olympics coverage, Olympic organizers plan to pipe ambient crowd noise into the arenas and stadiums to break the silence. Still, she said, TV viewers can expect to hear athletes' chatter and other "sounds of competition,'' as they did during sports events played in empty arenas earlier in the pandemic.
Kyra Condie said she's become used to that after competing at World Cup events with no spectators. In some sports, athletes will miss the rush generated by a full house of roaring fans.
"A lot of us on the team feed off the crowd,'' said gymnast Shane Wiskus, a former Gopher from Spring Park who is part of the four-man U.S. team. "That's what you live for. Not having fans is going to be really hard. We're going to have to get loud for each other.''
'Definitely a bummer'
The first athletes arrived at Tokyo's Olympic Village last week. Vaccinations are not mandatory, and some athletes — including American swimming star Michael Andrew — have said they do not plan to get inoculated. The International Olympic Committee said it expects 85 percent of village residents to be vaccinated, and athletes will be tested daily while in Japan. As of Friday, there had been 30 positive COVID-19 cases this month among Olympic-related personnel.
Several U.S. teams will spend part of their time elsewhere. The climbers will stay in a city outside Tokyo for a two-week, pre-Games training camp. According to Condie, they will be closely chaperoned and kept away from the public, with an entire hotel floor to themselves and a person assigned to bring them food.
"We'll get to do the Closing Ceremony, but we'll have to watch the Opening Ceremony on TV,'' she said. "It's definitely a bummer.''
It's uncertain how many athletes will be allowed to march in Friday's Opening Ceremony, traditionally a highlight of the Olympic experience. Athletes are prepared for lots of restrictions on where they can go and what they can do.
Lee said she worries the U.S. gymnasts are "going to have to be isolated the whole time'' and will need to find ways to stay busy to keep their nerves at bay. Grace McCallum of Isanti expects the team to watch lots of movies, while MyKayla Skinner was less sure how they would fill the time.
"Maybe we'll practice makeup and hair, or play games,'' she said. "Maybe sit on our phones 24/7. I don't know what we're going to do. It's definitely going to be different.''
That's an understatement. Less than two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, new rules were still being created. Wednesday, IOC President Thomas Bach said even the medal ceremonies will become a socially distanced affair, with medals offered on trays for athletes to put on themselves.
Willoughby has had the experience of someone else placing an Olympic medal around her neck, a silver won at the 2016 Rio Games. After waiting so long for these Olympics to arrive, she would be fine with handling the hardware on her own.
"I'm just happy and excited and grateful that everything is going forward,'' she said. "It's the Olympics. It may look a little different this time around. But it's a good thing it's happening.''