Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to alarm health officials worldwide, Olympic officials and Tokyo organizers have been adamant the Summer Games will take place as scheduled. Already postponed a full year, the Tokyo Games are scheduled to get underway July 23, and officials have said repeatedly that an Olympics can be safely staged this summer, even as public sentiment in Japan has wavered and health experts have highlighted some of the dangers.

Japan was in the midst of a fourth wave of the pandemic in the spring, with increasingly infectious variants of the virus gaining ground, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka. In an effort to curb the surge in cases, Tokyo entered a third state of emergency on April 25. Many of those restrictions were lifted in mid-June, but as the case numbers crept up government officials declared a new state of emergency on July 8, which will remain in effect through the end of the Olympics.

As the infection numbers rose in recent months, so did concerns surrounding the fate of the Summer Games. Olympic organizers publicly remained optimistic, but one high-ranking official with Japan’s ruling party said: “I want the Games to succeed, but to do so there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved. If it seems impossible, it needs to be stopped.”

Even with a new state of emergency in place in Tokyo, Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, said the Games “could certainly go ahead because the state of emergency would be sort of surrounding the bubble that is being created, and the bubble has been very carefully planned.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if the Olympics can’t be held in 2021?
  • How will they keep athletes safe during the Games?
  • Will athletes be quarantined?
  • Will vaccines be required of athletes or other attendees?
  • Will athletes compete in masks?
  • How will coronavirus testing work?

What happens if the Olympics can’t be held in 2021?

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has said there is no “Plan B.” If the Tokyo Games can’t be staged this summer, they probably won’t be held at all. The Japanese have tied up billions of dollars into hosting these Games, but neither the Tokyo organizers nor the IOC seem interested in kicking the can down the road. In mid-April — 100 days out from the opening ceremony — Olympic organizers said Tokyo was already “the best-prepared ever Games.”

Complicating any additional postponement scenarios, the IOC already is starting to turn much of its attention to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, which are scheduled to begin just six months after the Tokyo Olympics.

Since 1896, the Summer Olympics have taken place every four years except for 1916, 1940 and 1944, when they were canceled because of world wars.

How will they keep athletes safe during the Games?

While the two-plus weeks of competition might seem familiar to anyone watching on television, behind the scenes the Tokyo Games promise to look and feel different from any other Olympics. There will be no ticketed spectators allowed at any of the Olympic competitions, and athletes, along with all other attendees and participants, will be required to follow strict guidelines, aimed at minimizing risk and limiting exposure to the virus.

Athletes will not be allowed to stay in the Olympic Village for the duration of the Tokyo Games and must depart after their respective competitions conclude. Each athlete will be given a “playbook” that outlines a series of protocols and restrictions. They’ll be barred from using public transportation or visiting non-Olympic sites, including local bars, restaurants, shops and tourist destinations.

They’ll be required to submit two negative coronavirus tests before boarding a plane and will take a third test upon landing in Tokyo. Athletes then will be required to remain in their rooms for three days in Tokyo, according to the latest version of the playbook. They can leave the Olympic Village to train or do Olympic-related activities as long as they test negative each day.

Athletes will be urged to maintain good hygiene and practice social distancing. They’ll be tested for the coronavirus daily and will have to log daily health updates into a smartphone app.

Will athletes be quarantined?

While most travel into Japan has been restricted, the select few who’ve been permitted entry have been required to quarantine for 14 days. Olympic organizers originally said athletes would not have to quarantine, but in late April, they updated the guidelines. Upon leaving the airport, athletes will be expected to remain at their accommodations for rest of the day, plus an additional three days. After posting three additional negative tests, they can begin to move about the Olympic Village more freely. Olympic officials say athletes will still have opportunities to train during this quarantine period.

Will vaccines be required of athletes or other attendees?

IOC officials call vaccines “one of many tools available in the toolbox,” and they are urging athletes to get shots, if possible. But vaccines will not be a requirement to compete at these Olympics. The IOC is hopeful that athletes across the world have access to vaccines “given their role as ambassadors,” but the Olympic body also has said it supports “the priority of vaccinating vulnerable groups, nurses, medical doctors and everyone who is keeping our societies safe.”

In March, the Chinese Olympic Committee offered to make vaccines available to all Tokyo-bound athletes, and the IOC has pledged to cover the associated costs. In May, the IOC announced a donation of vaccines from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. Those doses are intended for participating athletes and delegations, but the announcement didn’t specify how many would be available or if the offer would extend to other staffers and volunteers.

While the IOC expects the majority of athletes in Tokyo to be inoculated by this summer, Olympians will face the same guidelines and protocols whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.

Will athletes compete in masks?

Athletes will not be required to wear masks during competition, but they will be expected to at just about all other times — “except when training, competing, eating or sleeping, or if you are outside and able to keep two meters apart from others,” according to the athletes’ playbook.

How will coronavirus testing work?

Athletes can expect to be tested daily. There will be a dedicated space in the Olympic Village for the athletes to undergo their tests. The initial tests will be a saliva antigen test. If the results are positive or not conclusive, the sample will undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Results are expected within 12 hours.

What happens if there is a positive test?

Any athletes testing positive will not be allowed to compete. They immediately must begin isolation or hospitalization, if necessary. Health officials will review all of their interactions from the two days that preceded the test (or onset of symptoms) and will begin contact tracing.

Close contacts will be required to test immediately and their participation could also be jeopardized. Olympic officials are defining a close contact as anyone whose had contact for at least 15 minutes within one meter and without a mask with a person who has tested positive. Decisions on participation will be made on a case-by-case basis and, according to the playbook, “will take into consideration the likelihood of you spreading the virus. To be allowed to compete and/or continue your role.” Daily negative tests will be required and enhanced countermeasures could be enforced to minimize further contact.

Athletes and all Olympic visitors will use smartphone apps to aid in contact tracing.

In June, a vaccinated member of Uganda’s team tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival in Japan. Uganda’s team had been vaccinated with Oxford-AstraZeneca shots and tested negative for the virus before departure, Japanese media reported, quoting an unnamed government official.

What happens if an athlete experiences symptoms?

Athletes are supposed to alert an appointed covid-19 liaison officer at the first sign of symptoms. If they’re at the Olympic Village or a competition venue, they’ll be taken immediately to a dedicated medical station, and if medical personnel think covid-19 is a possibility, the athlete would be transported to the “Fever Outpatient Clinic” in the village, where a test would be performed.

Athletes can expect their temperatures to be checked every time they enter an Olympic venue. If the temperature reads 99.5 degrees or higher, a second temperature check will be performed. If it is again high, the athlete will be barred from entering the venue, referred to a covid-19 liaison officer and taken to an isolation area.

How widespread is the coronavirus in Japan?

As of late June, Japan had seen more than 788,000 coronavirus cases and more than 14,450 deaths, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University — a fraction of the caseload experienced in the United States, which had more than 602,000 covid-related deaths in the same time period. A dozen states, in fact, have had a higher death toll than Japan, as of late June.

After a surge in cases late last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in the Tokyo area Jan. 7, which was twice extended before the government lifted it March 21. A third state of emergency was scheduled for April 25-May 11 and then extended through May 31. A fourth state of emergency was announced on July 8 and will run through Aug. 22.

Japan began giving out its first vaccination shots Feb. 17, but the rollout has been slow and only a fraction of the population is expected to be inoculated by July.

Does Japan even want to host these Olympics still?

Certainly government officials are heavily invested, but public support waned in the months leading into the Olympics. A pair of polls in January, conducted while the country was experiencing a surge in cases, cast an especially bad light on public opinion there.

More than 80 percent of respondents to a Kyodo News poll in January said they thought the Olympics should be canceled or rescheduled, up 17 percent from just a month earlier. Another poll around that same time — by the Tokyo Broadcasting System — found 81 percent of respondents felt the Olympics could not be held amid the pandemic, with just 13 percent saying they could.

As the Games have drew closer and the country saw its number of covid cases climb, Japanese citizens have rallied against the Olympics. In a poll released May 18, 83 percent opposed holding the Games. In late May, the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most influential newspapers and a sponsor of the Tokyo Olympics, published an editorial headlined, “Prime Minister Suga, please call off the Olympics this summer.”

Later that same week, Japan Doctors Union Chairman Naoto Ueyama warned that the Games could create an “Olympic strain” of the coronavirus. He echoed the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, which this month voiced its recommendation to cancel the Games in an open letter to Suga.

But in June, as Tokyo’s daily case count fell and the country’s vaccine numbers began to slowly climb, opposition to the Olympics softened. In a poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, 50 percent of Japanese people said they were in favor of holding the Games, compared with 48 percent who said the Olympics should be canceled.

Will there be spectators?

For the first time, the Olympics will be staged in empty stadiums and competition venues, a decision intended to limit the exposure to Olympic participants and limit the chances of a potential outbreak.

Tokyo 2020 officials initially decided in March that only Japanese spectators would be allowed to attend these Olympics. The decision was made to limit the number of foreigners coming into the country as organizers sought to keep both the local population and the Olympic proceedings as safe as possible.

Then in June, Tokyo officials said they would cap attendance at 50 percent of a venue’s capacity and no more 10,000 fans would be allowed to attend any Olympic event.

Tokyo 2020 officials decided in early July that there would be no spectators allowed at the marathon and race-walking events in Sapporo, and then on July 8 announced that there’d be no ticketed spectators allowed at any of the events, capping months of internal debate.