US women’s Olympic gymnastics gold medal rush could be tested by COVID

TOKYO – The biggest gold rush challenge for Simone Biles and the US women comes even before the competition begins.

The message that alternative Kara Eaker tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday following a training camp with Biles and the rest of the Olympic team, the test results over the next few days will be exciting. Biles is tallest in the Tokyo Olympics, heavily favored to win it all, and the US women are expected to go to a third straight team title.

However, you have to be competitive.

If the past few days have reminded us of anything, it is that the COVID pandemic is far from over and a full vaccination does not offer anyone impenetrable protection. Eaker said she was fully vaccinated after last month’s Olympics, but the 18-year-old is now in quarantine, as is her training colleague Leanne Wong, who was believed to be a close contact.

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USA Gymnastics says its training camp protocols created a barrier between the substitutes and the Olympic team members. Substitutes who were accommodated with substitutes sat on the opposite side of the room during meals and did not train on the same equipment as the Olympians at the same time.

Masks were to be worn at all times, except when eating, during active training or in their individual rooms.

Those protocols seemed to have worked because Biles and the rest of the team – Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum, and individual competitors Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner – weren’t forced to isolate themselves as close contacts. The six women posted photos from the Olympic Village when the news of Eaker’s test was actually leaked, and did so again after their training session on Tuesday.

The competition starts on Sunday.

“The entire delegation remains vigilant and will adhere to strict protocols while in Tokyo,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement Monday.

But the delay between exposure and testing positive means it will be a few days before Biles and the rest of the Olympic team are completely clear.

Given how dicey COVID makes everything, you need to wonder exactly what USA Gymnastics was thinking of having the substitutes coached alongside the Olympic team. In the last few games, substitutes were sent to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Training Grounds or elsewhere, and were the closest they got to team members watching the competition from the stands.

Still, USA Gymnastics decided that now that athletes can be pulled out of the Olympics, it is a good time to treat the entire delegation as one big, happy family. Deputies and team members train together, eat together and spend the night in the same hotel – what can go wrong!

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Yes, the entire women’s Olympic gymnastics team is fully vaccinated and all athletes are tested daily. But as Eaker’s positive test shows, no precautionary measures are too great, especially given what is at stake.

Should Biles defend her Olympic title – and since she hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013, that’s a pretty good bet – she’ll be the first woman to do so in more than 50 years. Biles is also preferred to win individual gold medals in the jump, floor exercise, and balance beam, which would make her the first US woman to win five gold medals in a single game.

Lee will be a favorite to win gold on the uneven bars, and the Americans are so deep they’ll likely get a second medal on the vault, floor, and beam. (It would be more, but the International Gymnastics Federation only allows two gymnasts per country to compete in the individual finals.)

But sure, go ahead and risk all of this with a larger tour group than necessary.

This is not to suggest that any of the gymnasts are acting irresponsibly or not taking the protocols seriously. But the rising threat of the Delta variant, which is more contagious than other COVID-19 strains, means you can do everything right and still get infected.

Even if you are vaccinated.

As one of the star attractions in Tokyo, Biles and the US women were prepared for the world to be curious about every detail. Little did they know that this would include the results of their COVID tests as well.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.


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