U.S. gymnast catches COVID just days before Olympic opener

Tokyo — With just four days to go until the opening ceremony, the COVID-19 pandemic is casting an ever longer shadow over the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Officials have reported at least 12 new coronavirus cases connected with the Games since Sunday, including a U.S. gymnast and the first cases among athletes inside the Olympic village.

Several of the latest COVID-related losses will be felt sorely by Team USA. 

On Monday, the Japanese city hosting the U.S. gymnastics team for pre-Games training said a female gymnast from the team had tested positive. The name of the athlete, who is in her teens, has been withheld by the city of Inzai, in Chiba Prefecture, where she had been training.

2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Gymnastics - Day 4
The women representing Team USA pose following the Women’s competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials at America’s Center on June 27, 2021 in St. Louis, Missouri. Getty

While several athletes from overseas have tested positive for the virus since arriving in Japan, the gymnast was the first known COVID-19 case among Olympians from the United States. Another U.S. gymnast was isolating in her hotel room after health authorities determined that they had been in close contact with the young woman who tested positive.

The COVID-positive American gymnast was first suspected of being infected with the virus on Sunday, and another test at a hospital early on Monday confirmed the result, according to Inzai officials. The U.S. team of 10 athletes was being screened for the virus daily since their arrival in Japan on Thursday. They had only left their hotel for training using a designated bus, the city said.

Tennis phenom Coco Gauff broke the news on Sunday that she, too, had tested positive and would not be participating in the Games. Gauff revealed her test just a couple days after USA Basketball lost point guard Bradley Beal. He was placed under COVID health and safety protocols due to a possible close contact near the end of last week.

Coco Gauff of the U.S. in seen in action during her second-round match at Wimbledon July 1, 2021.
Coco Gauff of the U.S. in seen in action during her second-round match at  Wimbledon July 1, 2021. Reuters/Paul Childs

All will be big losses for Team USA, but they’re just more curveballs in what has already been an incredibly shaky start to this year’s Olympics.

As more Olympic teams descended on the Japanese capital over the weekend, two South African soccer players tested positive for the virus, becoming the first athletes with confirmed infections inside the Olympic village.

The South African Football Association said the whole team was put under quarantine — with their first match just three days away. They will only be allowed to compete if they all test negative six hours before the match.

Japan’s Kyodo TV reported on Monday that an unnamed member of the U.S. Gymnastics team had tested positive for COVID-19 in Japan, in addition to a beach volleyball player from the Czech team.  

While Olympics officials said there was “zero” chance of the Games triggering a super-spreader event, most Japanese haven’t bought that line. Two separate news polls over the weekend showed that an overwhelming majority of residents remained skeptical that the Games could be held safely.

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Outside the village, the sprawling city of almost 14 million faces its own surge. Tokyo saw five consecutive days with more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases until they finally dipped again on Monday. The weekly average of new cases jumped more than 45% last week.

A major sponsor, Toyota, has pulled its Tokyo Olympics advertising and said its president won’t attend the opening ceremony on Friday — a sign of the stigma associated with these trouble-plagued Games.

Local opposition to the Games isn’t the only challenge this week. Officials also issued the first heatstroke alert for the city so far this year, encouraging athletes to drink more water to account for an Olympics that could, on top of everything else, end up being the hottest Games in decades.