Explaining the complex COVID-19 protocols at the Tokyo Olympics

Tom Schad

For more than a year now, there have been swirling questions about whether or how the Tokyo Olympics would take place amid COVID-19.

Now, the answers to both are clear.

The Olympics will begin next week, with the opening ceremony set for Friday. And the COVID-19 countermeasures, which have been in the works for months, are now being put into action as athletes start to arrive at the Olympic Village ahead of competition.

So how, exactly, are these Olympics going to work, with all the COVID-19 protocols?

Here's a look at what is being enacted by the Japanese government and Olympic organizers – and the logistical hoops that athletes will have to jump through in order to compete.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a display promoting Tokyo 2020. The opening ceremony is scheduled for July 23.

What happens when an athlete arrives in Japan?

The protocols actually begin several days prior to arrival.

Before athletes (and other stakeholders) even board their flights, they have to take two COVID-19 tests – one within 96 hours of departure, and another within 72 hours – and fill out a government document certifying that they tested negative in each case. Then, upon arrival in Japan, they must take another rapid test when clearing customs, before being transported by official Tokyo 2020 vehicles to the Olympic Village or their hotel.

Athletes have been asked to arrive no earlier than five days before they're set to compete. They, like other Japanese visitors, also have to download an app on their phones that allows the government to track their movement, for contact tracing.

Will athletes have to quarantine?

No. According to the playbook released by Tokyo 2020, athletes and officials will be allowed to perform "Games-related activities" during their first three days in Tokyo – the time period in which other stakeholders, including some media members, are required to quarantine. 

However, in order to avoid the quarantine period, athletes have to continue to test negative for COVID-19 and agree to "operate under a higher level of supervision" from organizers – which could mean allowing staff members to track them on their phones or physically monitor their movements.

Do athletes and other Olympic staff have to be vaccinated?

No, but the expectation is that the majority of them will be.

The International Olympic Committee said last month that it anticipates more than 80% of residents in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated prior to arrival.

Are vaccinated athletes treated differently than unvaccinated ones?

Nope. Every athlete must follow every rule outlined by Olympic organizers, regardless of whether she or he is vaccinated.

What sort of rules will athletes have to follow?

Let's start with the basics: Social distancing and masks. Handshakes and high-fives are discouraged. Athletes are instructed to stay six feet away from others. And masks are mandatory for everyone at all times "except when eating, drinking, training, competing or sleeping."

Beyond that, athletes will be limited in their movement, similar to other stakeholders. They won't be allowed to use public transportation, except in extenuating circumstances. They'll be expected to only visit locations that have been submitted to Japan for approval in activity plans. And they'll have to inform Japanese authorities of their exact whereabouts upon request for contact tracing.

How often will athletes be tested for COVID-19?

Athletes will be required to take a saliva antigen test every day while in Tokyo, usually at 9 a.m. or 6 p.m., depending on their competition schedules.

If that test comes back positive, a PCR test – which is more reliable – will be conducted on the same saliva. And if that one is also positive, then the athlete will be required to take a nasopharyngeal PCR test – the long nasal swaps that were common at the beginning of the pandemic. 

What happens if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19?

If Japanese health authorities determine that an athlete has COVID-19, she or he will be immediately transported to a designated hotel to quarantine until further notice. The duration of the quarantine is solely up to Japanese health authorities.

Naturally, this would also require pulling the athlete from competition. If the positive test came in the middle of competition, the athlete would receive the minimum award they were eligible to receive at the time of their withdrawal. For example: If a boxer tested positive for COVID-19 prior to a gold medal match, she or he would still automatically receive a silver medal.

How will contact tracing work?

The playbook released by Tokyo 2020 defines a "close contact" as someone who has been within three feet of an infected person, without wearing a mask, for 15 minutes or more. If officials determine that an athlete meets these criteria, they will be required to take daily nasopharyngeal PCR tests for a period of time before returning to competition.

That duration of time, and other contact tracing decisions, will be made on a case-by-case basis and fall under the auspices of a body called the "Results Advisory Expert Group." This group may also take into consideration an athlete's "medical history" – which would likely include their vaccination status – in determining how likely they might be to spread the disease to others.

What happens if an athlete knowingly breaks COVID-19 protocols?

This is still a bit murky. Pierre Ducrey, the operations director for the Olympic Games, said in a news conference last month any violation of the protocols could result in a range of punishments, from a warning to a fine to expulsion from the Games altogether.

"Yes, we expect you to play by the rules, but if you don’t there will be sanctions that could be coming your way," he said.

With that said, it's unclear if specific actions (like being caught without wearing a mask) will result in specific punishments. 

Can athletes stay in Tokyo after their competition ends?

No. Well, not more than a few days, anyways. Organizers say athletes must leave Japan "no more than 48 hours after the completion of their competition or when they are eliminated (whichever is sooner)."

Do all of these same rules apply for other groups, outside of athletes?

More or less, yeah. There are slight variations between "Olympic stakeholder" groups, but the general tenents are the same across the board. 

What's the state of COVID-19 in Japan right now?

Tokyo is in a state of emergency for the duration of the Olympics, though this isn't quite as ominous as it sounds. It basically just means that some businesses must comply with heightened restrictions – restaurants and bars are not allowed to sell alcohol, for instance, and department stores are forced to close early.

The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in Japan is still low, compared to other parts of the world – but it is growing as the delta variant takes hold. And only about 18.5% of Japanese citizens had been fully vaccinated, as of Tuesday.

Will there be any spectators?

Japan has barred international spectators from attending. And, given the COVID-19 situation outlined above, it has prohibited local fans at all of its major venues, including those in Tokyo.

There is still a chance that some venues in outlying areas like Miyagi and Shizuoka could welcome fans, but for the most part, the Olympics will be a made-for-TV event held behind closed doors.

Will all of these protocols work?

We're about to find out!

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.