Saturday, September 18, 2021
Sept. 18, 2021

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In Our View: Olympics still sports spectacular, despite COVID

The Columbian

Some 16 months into the coronavirus pandemic, the world will come together over the next two weeks. The Tokyo Olympics — which officially begin today — will be as symbolically powerful as they are competitive, marking a turning point in the fight against COVID-19 while serving as a reminder that the virus still is with us.

During competitions that will feature some 11,000 athletes from around the globe, Clark County will be well represented. Three athletes from the area — gymnast Jordan Chiles, javelin thrower Kara Winger and race-walker Daniel Nehnevaj — will represent the United States.

Chiles, as a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, is likely to become a household name. Women’s gymnastics is a prime-time staple of American TV coverage during the Olympics, and the United States is heavily favored to win gold in the team competition.

Winger (née Patterson) and Nehnevaj, however, more broadly reflect the Olympic ethos. Neither is considered a strong medal contender, but they have spent years training to reach their potential in their chosen discipline.

For Winger, who until recently held the American record in women’s javelin, this will mark her fourth Olympics. Her skill at throwing a 1.3-pound, 86-inch spear, competing in a sport that dates to ancient Greece, has taken her to Olympics in Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro and now Tokyo.

Regardless of the sport or the event, qualifying for the Olympics is a remarkable achievement; 621 athletes were chosen for Team USA. All those athletes have endured an unprecedented year, with the Games delayed in 2020 because of the pandemic. That turns today’s Opening Ceremony into a bit of a catharsis.

While many things will appear normal, these Olympics cannot escape the specter of COVID, with spectators being prohibited at most competitions. Organizers announced months ago that spectators from other countries will not be admitted, leaving even the athletes’ family members to watch online or on TV. Weeks ago, all spectators were banned from Tokyo-area venues in the wake of a local shutdown.

Compared with the United States and most of Europe, Japan has had relatively low rates of COVID infections. But inoculations have languished, with about one-third of the population fully vaccinated. Even without spectators entering the country, athletes are accompanied by thousands of coaches, staff and media members, leading to concerns that the Games will turn into a super-spreader event.

On Tuesday, Olympic organizers reported 71 COVID cases linked to the Games, including 31 among international visitors. On Monday, it was revealed that an alternate on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team had tested positive, and two members of the U.S. men’s basketball team have either withdrawn from the Games or been placed in COVID protocol.

The threat of coronavirus will be impossible to ignore throughout the Tokyo Olympics, yet it is appropriate for the Games to go on. In the process, they will reflect the world’s uneasy reconciliation with COVID-19.

A year ago, when the virus was new, uncertainty called for drastic measures such as shutdowns and isolation. Those measures have gradually been supplanted by caution as our knowledge has increased.

Despite the unavoidable concerns, the world’s greatest athletes will partake in sports’ greatest showcase. It will make for an unforgettable — and an unprecedented — Olympics.