by Matt Barkett

July 20, 2021

The Olympics are an enduring symbol of international engagement, celebration and sport unlike any other. From the Jamaican bobsled team’s amazing run to qualify for the 1988 winter games to Michael Phelps’ more recent domination of men’s swimming events, the games are always marked with sensational stories about achievements from unlikely contributors and prohibitive favorites.

So, what will be the big storylines in this year’s Tokyo games? Most likely, the attention will revolve around the athletes and teams who can navigate COVID-19 and stay eligible. Yes, once again the virus that rocked the world is going to take center stage, with media that would normally be focused on the great athletic competition, talking nonstop about the virus and its daily (hourly?) impact on the athletes.

It’s already a major focus the week heading into the opening ceremony. U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff tested positive and had to withdraw this week, as well as Katie Lou Samuelson from the women’s 3×3 basketball team and the vaunted U.S. women’s gymnastics team had an alternate test positive this week, leading to concerns about who else may have been exposed. And what is yet to come with more than 10,000 athletes from literally every corner of the globe now arriving in Tokyo?

With Japan’s vaccination rates lagging far behind that of other developed countries, it’s not hard to imagine this Olympics turning into one of the biggest super spreader events in recent memory. While there will be no fans in the stands under state of emergency ordered earlier this month by the Japanese government, the sheer magnitude of keeping athletes healthy and appropriately distanced seems an impossibly tall task.

Yes, this year’s summer games will have its own special form of drama, and it’s not one that anyone welcomes. Here’s hoping we still see some great competition and perhaps some unexpected moments of triumph by unlikely heroes. But it’s seemingly certain the moments of greatest heartache will come from someone who, through no fault of their own, misses their final chance at Olympic glory because of the virus that has so dominated our lives for the past year and half.