South African cases spark cluster scare in Olympic Village

Published July 19, 2021
Protesters against the Tokyo Olympics gather outside Akasaka Palace, Japanese state guest house, where the welcome party for IOC President Thomas Bach and its officials is held on Sunday. The banner, yellow, reads “IOC is a looter ! Use Olympic fees for social welfare”.—AP
Protesters against the Tokyo Olympics gather outside Akasaka Palace, Japanese state guest house, where the welcome party for IOC President Thomas Bach and its officials is held on Sunday. The banner, yellow, reads “IOC is a looter ! Use Olympic fees for social welfare”.—AP

TOKYO: Two South African footballers have become the first athletes inside the Olympic Village to test positive for Covid-19, raising fears of a cluster just days before the opening ceremony.

The cases further darkened a gloomy atmosphere around the 2020 Games, which will finally open after a year’s delay on Friday but remain widely opposed by the Japanese public.

Organisers confirmed the positive tests on Sunday but didn’t identify the athletes other than to say they were non-Japanese. The South African Football Association later confirmed there were three Covid-19 cases in its delegation two players and a video analyst.

The players were defender Thabiso Monyane and midfielder Kamohelo Mahlatsi, SAFA said.

“The South African squad had been quarantined and was waiting for the results of further tests conducted on players and backroom staff on Sunday,” team manager Mxolisi Sibam said in a statement.

South Africa are due to play Japan in their first game of the men’s football competition on Thursday at Tokyo Stadium.

South Africa’s rugby sevens coach Neil Powell also tested positive and is in isolation in the Japanese town where the squad are training.

The timing of the positive results suggests that the PCR test in these individuals was done during the incubation period of the infection, which is how they could be negative in South Africa and then positive in Japan,” said chief medical officer Phatho Zondi.

Organisers also said on Sunday that another athlete had tested positive but this person was not residing in the Olympic Village. This athlete was also identified as non-Japanese.

Also on Sunday, the first International Olympic Committee member was reported as positive. He recorded a positive test on Saturday upon entering a Tokyo airport.

The International Olympic Committee confirmed the test and identified him as Ryu Seung-min of South Korea. He won an Olympic gold medal in table tennis in the 2004 Olympics.

He was reportedly being held in isolation. Reports said he was asymptomatic.

The new infections are testing the layered testing regime designed to ensure Covid cases are quickly caught and isolated. Proponents argue that the growing number of cases underscores the strength of the testing system.

Infection rates are climbing among Tokyo’s general population, topping 1,000 new cases for five consecutive days. Polls show many Japanese oppose holding the Games with the influx of overseas visitors it entails.

IOC President Thomas Bach said last week there was zero risk of athletes in the village passing on the virus to Japanese or other residents of the village.

Former distance runner Tegla Loroupe, the chief of mission of the IOC’s Refugee Olympic Team, tested positive for Covid-19, two people with knowledge of her condition said.

Loroupe tested positive before the team was to depart its Doha, Qatar, training base for Tokyo. The team has delayed its arrival in Tokyo and many are expected to start arriving in the next few days.

Loroupe is expected to stay behind, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorised to reveal medical information.

Organisers say since July 1, 55 people linked to the Olympics have reported positive tests. This figure does not include athletes or others who may have arrived for training camps but are not yet under the jurisdiction of the organising committee.

The Olympic Village on Tokyo Bay will house 11,000 Olympic athletes and thousands of support staff.

The Tokyo Games will be held largely behind closed doors to prevent infections. The Japanese capital remains under a coronavirus state of emergency and has been battling a sharp uptick in cases.

Olympic officials have been at pains to play down the health risks of the Games, which are taking place in stringent anti-coronavirus conditions with athletes tested daily.

Mingling and crossing of populations is very limited. We keep the risk to an absolute minimum level,” Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi said on Sunday. We can ensure that transmission between the various groups is almost impossible.”

Athletes are arriving to find a restrictive environment, with daily testing, social distancing and no movement possible outside the Olympic“bubble”. They are under orders to leave Japan 48 hours after their event.

In another example of the difficulties, Australia’s entire athletics team was quarantined before departure after a member of their entourage returned an inconclusive test. The official later tested negative.

We expect that there’ll be cases associated with these Games and really what’s going to matter is how we respond to that and to ensure that there’s no complacency,” said David Hughes, medical director of the Australian Olympic team.

The Olympics will open on Friday under a state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures. The emergency order lasts until August 22. The Olympics close on August 8.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is betting his political fortunes on successfully pulling off the Games while suppressing rising Covid cases.

Public support for his cabinet has slid to 35.9%, a Kyodo poll showed on Sunday, the lowest since he took power last September. Just 29.4% think the fourth state of emergency, which began last Monday, is effective, according to the poll.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2021

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