A Superspreader Olympics Could 'Ruin' Athletes' Careers

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics could cause a COVID superspreading event that risks ruining the careers of athletes if they experience long-lasting symptoms, experts have told Newsweek.

The warning comes days before the games start on Friday. On Saturday, July 17, an official became the first COVID case confirmed in the Olympic village, where 11,000 people are due to live for the games. This was followed on Sunday by the first competitors testing positive in the village, after two South African soccer players caught the virus, with a Czech beach volleyball player announced as the third on Monday.

Since July 1, a total of 67 cases have been reported among people accredited for the games, according to the International Olympic Committee.

Monday also saw a Team USA gymnast, who was at a training camp outside of Tokyo, become the first U.S. athlete to test positive for the virus.

The Olympics will be held without spectators, amid a state of emergency in Japan to prevent the spread of COVID. Opposition to the games being held among the country's residents is high, with an Ipsos Global Advisor poll published on Tuesday showing 78 percent of respondents did not think it should go ahead.

After the spate of cases, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the games would be "safe and secure." However, asked at a press conference on Tuesday, Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo Organising Committee, did not rule out canceling the games if coronavirus cases spike.

Hans Westerbeek, professor of International Sport Business at the Institute for Health and Sport Victoria University, Australia told Newsweek: "The athlete COVID cases reported in Tokyo are most likely the start of a superspreading event." Other experts who spoke to Newsweek said the cases do not yet constitute a superspreading event because there are too few and not all linked together, but could do eventually.

"Given the close proximity of athletes and their teams, and the constant moving and interacting in living quarters, dining halls and training and competition venues, the virus is likely to spread rapidly," said Westerbeek.

Newsweek contacted the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for comment. In response, a spokesperson referred to a press conference on Monday with Dr. Brian McCloskey, chair of the Independent Expert Panel on Tokyo 2020 COVID countermeasures, who was asked whether he is concerned the Olympics will become a superspreader event.

He said: "What we're seeing is what we expected to see... if I thought all the tests that we did were going to be negative, I wouldn't bother doing the tests in the first place."

McCloskey described a process of "filtering," where people are tested before departure, at the airport, and at the Olympic village.

"Each layer of filtering is a reduction in the risk for everybody else. And that's what we expect to see. And the numbers we're seeing are actually extremely low. They're lower than we expected to see if anything," he said.

According to the Olympics playbook, over 80 percent of Olympic and Paralympic Village will be vaccinated ahead of the games. However, participants and team officials are not required to be vaccinated to compete.

While the rate of vaccination means the risk to athletes is low, it is still there because of the potential for the Olympics to become a superspreader event, said professor Maximilian de Courten, MD., director of the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Australia's Victoria University.

"The more individuals you pile into one place, the greater the opportunity for the coronavirus to infect many people at once," de Courten said.

De Coutern said: "Even vaccinated people can become infected with the virus, especially the Delta variant, but will have generally much milder disease, and spread the infection less.

"However, for an athlete competing at Olympic level, even a mild infection will rob her from chances to compete at the top level."

Citing current estimates that around 30 percent of people with COVID develop long COVID, professor Mike Toole, an epidemiologist at Australia's Burnet Institute, told Newsweek catching COVID could trigger "debilitating symptoms that may ruin their athletic careers."

He also pointed out that developing long COVID is not connected with the severity of the initial illness. Vaccines are known to slash the chances of a person falling seriously ill or dying.

Lasting symptoms after COVID can include shortness of breath, tiredness or fatigue, and brain fog, among others, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kari Brossard Stoos, associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education at Ithaca College, said that while the mechanisms behind long COVID are unknown, if an athlete becomes infected with COVID and develops long-haul symptoms, "it will likely impact their athletic performance and potentially their long-term athletic career."

Lisa Brosseau, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health who recently co-wrote an article published in the NEJM on protecting Olympic participants, said it would not be known until around two to four weeks after the games if it was a super-spreading event. First there needs to be a large surge of cases in Tokyo, Japan or other parts of the world that can be traced back to participants.

"Everyone participating in the Olympics—whether competing or providing support or officiating or reporting, etc.—puts athletes and everyone around them at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Even if fully vaccinated," said Brosseau.

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Police officers patrol at the Tokyo International Forum on July 20, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images