By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

For many of the world’s best gymnasts, the thought of going to the Olympics pops into their mind at a very young age. As children they watch their idols on TV, wearing their nation’s colors proudly as they perform in front of thousands of fans on the sport’s biggest stage. Soon they go from that little kid in the gym just having fun, to being fully committed to the lifestyle of an elite level athlete with Olympic aspirations.  

Countless hours spent in the gym becomes years of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears until it is finally their turn to achieve Olympic glory. For many, Tokyo will be their first trip to an Olympic Games—the first time experiencing the moment they have worked their entire life for. Yet, it will be different than any dream they have ever had, or any story they have been told.

It all began when the world came to a grinding halt due to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the start of 2020. Gyms shut their doors, disrupting the highly regimented routines of Olympic hopefuls across the country, many of which have never taken more than a day off in their entire career. The days turned into weeks, as gymnasts scrambled to figure out a training plan and at the same time, got creative with what they could do outside of the gym. With just four months out to the start of the Games, worry and doubt about preparation and readiness was swirling. 

On March 24, 2020, the International Olympic Committee announced the Olympics were officially postponed to the summer of 2021. Now, the schedule for gymnastics is expected to kick off with men’s qualifications on July 24, 2021. Just five months out, one of the biggest question marks is what the experience will look like for the athletes and how their safety will be ensured. As the clock continues to tick, one thing is certain: Tokyo will be an Olympics like we have never seen before.  

What To Expect 

In February 2021, the IOC released the first version of the Olympic Playbook, giving athletes a glimpse of what they can expect in Tokyo. It begins with a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before departing for Japan. Athletes and coaches will be tested again upon their arrival and will not be expected to quarantine; however, they will be tested at least once every four days while in Tokyo. For teams who attend a Pre-Games training camp, everyone will be tested again three days prior to arriving in the Olympic Village. 

The COVID-19 vaccine and whether Olympic athletes should jump to the top of the priority list has been a big point of discussion. The IOC is not requiring vaccinations; however, it is recommended and encouraged. The dispersion of vaccines is something each country’s National Olympic Committee has been tasked, and will have to plan ahead for. Most COVID-19 vaccines require two doses several weeks apart, and it takes a few weeks after the second dose for the full benefits to kick in. That means to be fully protected, athletes should receive their first shot at least two months before they leave for Tokyo. 

With vaccines scarce in many areas across the United States and all over the world, there is currently no concrete plan for vaccinating athletes. The Feb. 17 USOPC Coronavirus Update states the USOPC is “exploring options to procure and deliver the COVID-19 vaccine to eligible Team USA athletes and delegation members” and encouraged athletes to monitor the vaccine distribution process in their state and sign up once they have an opportunity to receive the vaccine. 

The Olympic Village, often the heart of the Games, will have a much different feel in 2021. Typically, this is where athletes get to mingle with other athletes from around the world, unwind after practice or competition, and celebrate. However, with over 11,000 athletes from nearly 200 countries expected to compete, it is simply not feasible during a pandemic. 

Athletes are only permitted to travel to Official Games Venues and other predetermined locations such as training centers or spots provided for media appearances. Athletes are not allowed to use any form of public transportation and may only use vehicles designated for the Games. All transportation and activity will be logged and reported to Japanese authorities. 

Masks will be required unless the athlete is training, competing, eating, or outside in an open space. Athletes will also be required to self-monitor and report daily symptoms via the health reporting app, COCOA, which will be used for contact tracing. If at any point an athlete tests positive, they will not be allowed to compete and will be hospitalized or required to self-isolate. 

To limit exposure, athletes are not allowed to arrive at the Olympic Village more than five days before their first competition. Once their final competition concludes, they will be required to leave within 48 hours. There will be no sightseeing, no sticking around to support your teammates competing in event finals, no attending other sporting events, and no closing ceremony.

Sam Mikulak, who hopes to make Tokyo his third Olympic appearance, said this is an unfortunate blow for first time Olympians. 

“You’ve heard your whole life how great it is, and you get to see all these high-level people and celebrities,” Mikulak said. “It’s years of hard work and you finally get this one week of spectacular awe, so not having that will definitely be a big disappointment. I feel bad for all the people who this will be their first Games. The experience is going to be so much lower compared to what it has been in previous years, so that is where I am kind of blessed. I’m cool with everything being low profile because I already know how good it has been and I’m just happy to be having a chance to go for it again.

After London and Rio, Mikulak said he stuck around until the closing ceremony with some of his teammates and got to explore the city and meet new people. Those are moments that he cherished from his Olympic experiences. 

“We all finally got a break, and it was really good bonding time for all of us,” Mikulak said. “That was half the fun of actually going to the Games.”

The competition itself will present an unusual dynamic. Athletes will not be allowed to shake hands, hug, or socialize with other athletes. Fans, if permitted, will be required to wear masks, and encouraged to clap rather than sing or cheer. Specifics regarding spectators has not yet been announced, but the Japanese Government is expected to make a decision by the end of spring. 

Mikulak said he is telling his family and friends they cannot come. Like most athletes, he does not want to set himself up for disappointment in a time already filled with so much uncertainty. 

“If [spectators are not allowed] then I’m already accepting of it,” Mikulak said. “If [they are allowed] then it’s like, ‘Oh, sweet. You guys get to come.’ If I can have the bare minimum Olympics that will make me as happy as possible. Anything on top of that is going to be a cherry on top.”

But for a first time Olympian, the thought of not feeling an electric crowd behind you, knowing your family is not there to see fulfill your dream, and not getting to partake in any of the traditional Olympic activities that make the experience so magical—might be a hard pill to swallow. 

Take Sunisa Lee for example, who is hoping to make her first Olympic team this summer. At the World Championships in 2019 she experienced all the fun perks of travelling across the country and representing the USA. When the hard work is done for the day, bonding with the team, meeting other athletes, and exploring the city is what the athletes look forward to. Without that sense of normalcy, Lee said the Olympics would be difficult.  

“I think it is good for us to see our friends and do all that fun stuff because it takes our mind off of gymnastics for a little bit and let’s us feel normal,” Lee said. “If I think about the competition too much, I will get nervous and start overthinking.”

However, the athlete’s safety remains the biggest priority and concern. Mikulak said he feels confident the correct steps are being taken to make the Games as safe as possible. 

“We’ll see how the vaccines play out, how we can get ours, how that process goes along,” Mikulak said. “But I’m optimistic that everything is going to be safe. They are going to go above and beyond to make everyone safe … Nothing is set in stone, but my fingers are crossed.”

Lee said there were moments she was uncertain if the Olympics would even happen, but if it does, she too feels comfortable with the idea of going. 

“It has been a goal of mine for a really long time and nothing is going to change that,” Lee said. “I am so used to all the COVID-19 protocols that I think it wouldn’t bother me if we had to get tested everyday or if they changed the way we did things. None of this is in my control so if things had to be done a certain way to compete, I will most definitely do it.” 

At this point, many athletes are familiar with COVID-19 protocols and are prepared to follow them. The biggest challenge will be accepting the reality that Tokyo will be vastly different than any other in Olympic history. 

Mikulak said the best advice he can offer to first time Olympians is to shift their mindset—viewing Tokyo as more of a business trip than anything else. By mentally preparing for the unusual circumstances in the final months leading up to the Games, he feels team USA can set themselves up for success. 

“Train in a way that helps you feel like you’re alone out there and feel comfortable being alone out there because that’s going to be the biggest difference—not having your family with you or a big crowd,” Mikulak said. “Just get yourself ready for that… It takes a big toll, but everyone is going to be under the same playing field. Some people might thrive with having no crowd, but some people like the momentum and it gives them that edge, which is what I like. It’s going to be a new learning curve to find that intensity and find that rush without having the crowd to give that to you.”

Note: More details are expected to be released in April when the Playbook is updated. 

Photo credit: Lloyd Smith and Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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