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The Backstory: Reporting from the COVID Olympics requires 5-hour airport screenings, apps to track your every move - and a lot of spit tests

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I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

Despite pushing back the Summer Olympics by a full year, these still will be the COVID Games.

On Sunday, Coco Gauff, the highest-ranked American tennis player going to the Games, announced she tested positive before traveling to Tokyo and would not play.

Monday, we learned an alternate on the U.S. women's gymnastics team, Kara Eaker, had COVID-19, becoming the first known American athlete to test positive while in Japan. She was fully vaccinated.

And Wednesday, news broke that American beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb tested positive after arriving in Japan. He said Thursday he's pulling out of the Olympics.

Coronavirus cases surged to a six-month high in Tokyo a week before the Olympics. Japan is about 23% fully vaccinated. The International Olympic Committee urged, but didn’t require, participants to be vaccinated. Since July 1, 91 coronavirus cases have been tied to the Games, with 52 confirmed among Japanese residents, according to the organizing committee. Those who test positive are immediately quarantined.

Olympic organizers have been working to avoid a widespread COVID-19 outbreak, with strict protocols in place for all involved – athletes, staffers and, yes, journalists. USA TODAY had 37 staffers scheduled to go to Tokyo, only 36 made the trip.

Before boarding the plane for Tokyo, Olympic stakeholders needed two coronavirus tests – one within 96 hours of departure, and another within 72 hours – and to fill out a government document certifying that they tested negative in each case. Our team is fully vaccinated. Still, one of our journalists tested positive. New infections have nearly tripled in the U.S. over the last two weeks.

Once journalists arrive at Narita and Haneda airports, they are immediately tested again (this time a spit test). Then their paperwork is checked. Journalists had to file "activity plans" with Olympic organizers, detailing the competition venues they planned to visit. They are not allowed to go anywhere but their hotels, the media center and the locations listed.

Journalists, athletes and others had to download an app on their phones that tracks their locations. Those without approved plans had to quarantine in their hotels for three days while their itineraries were vetted. After 14 days, they are allowed to take public transportation.

"The thing that sticks in my mind, and I think will stick in my mind years after this, is the anxiety and the uncertainty of the preparation for these Olympics," said USA TODAY Sports columnist Christine Brennan, who has covered 19 Olympic Games. "I mean, when we got on our planes, we had no idea if we'd be able to cover the Games right away."

Roxanna Scott, USA TODAY Sports managing editor, has been planning for these Games since the end of the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. Events are still in flux. For example, little was known Thursday about what to expect at the opening ceremony, which begins 8 p.m. local time today in Japan. That's 7 a.m. ET in the U.S. USA TODAY will have two reporters and five photographers in the Olympic Stadium.

Team USA announced its flag bearers Wednesday, veteran women's basketball player Sue Bird and baseball player Eddy Alvarez. It also said about 230 athletes, or 37% of its delegation, would participate in the traditional "Parade of Nations." Olympic organizers haven't said how many total athletes will be allowed to march or the number of VIPs permitted to attend. General spectators are not allowed.

USA TODAY Sports journalists covering the Tokyo Summer Olympics include, clockwise from top left: Sports Managing Editor Roxanna Scott; reporter Chris Bumbaca; reporter Tyler Dragon; reporter Tom Schad; columnist Christine Brennan; and columnist Nancy Armour.
USA TODAY Sports journalists covering the Tokyo Summer Olympics include, clockwise from top left: Sports Managing Editor Roxanna Scott; reporter Chris Bumbaca; reporter Tyler Dragon; reporter Tom Schad; columnist Christine Brennan; and columnist Nancy Armour.

When one person tests positive for COVID-19 at the Olympics, it impacts far more than just that individual. Anyone in close contact must be monitored, potentially jeopardizing competitions.

"There were two athletes on the South African soccer team who tested positive, and they identified 21 close contacts," reporter Tom Schad said. "Those close contacts weren't taken to quarantine, like people who test positive, but they're required to stay in their rooms in the Olympic Village and have meals brought to them."

Schad said the close contacts travel on a specific team bus to training and are tested every day. Then a group of experts decides on any additional measures depending on the case. Athletes in contact with those testing positive must take a PCR test six hours before a game, and test negative in order to compete.

Five members of the Czech delegation – including three athletes – had tested positive and were in isolation as of Thursday. Now there is concern about the others on their chartered flight, which had 14 athletes.

Columnist Nancy Armour has covered every Olympics since 1996. In Tokyo, she's reporting on gymnastics. She said the U.S. women's gymnastics team decided not to stay in the Olympic Village. For those who do stay, there is little time for mingling.

"Athletes are not allowed to check into the village until five days before their competition," she said. "And then they are supposed to leave two days after they're done competing. In Olympics past, you might finish your competition and then you'd stick around for the rest of the Games. That's not going to be happening. You've got 48 hours to get out."

Reporter Tyler Dragon is covering track and field. He said media members are escorted from their hotels to the shuttle bus stop. When he entered the press center on his first day, he had to take another COVID-19 test. "I haven’t seen one person without a mask in Tokyo," he said.

USA TODAY staff including, from left, Andrew Scott, Sandy Hooper, Alex Ptachick and Roxanna Scott are in Tokyo, Japan to cover the Summer Olympics on July 22, 2021.
USA TODAY staff including, from left, Andrew Scott, Sandy Hooper, Alex Ptachick and Roxanna Scott are in Tokyo, Japan to cover the Summer Olympics on July 22, 2021.

There are some who say it's reckless to hold the Games. IOC spokesman Mark Adams defends the decision. "The amount of testing that is going on and the isolation (called for) in the playbooks are very, very strict indeed. There can never be zero risk, but we've reduced it as far as it can be."

Certainly all involved hope that is the case. There are 11,000 athletes expected in Tokyo from 200 countries and 46,000 people traveling to Japan from overseas, the largest regularly scheduled worldwide peacetime event.

In total, the Tokyo Games will feature 339 events across 33 sports.

Our 36 staffers are there to bring you all the news from Tokyo. Plus, we've got reporters in more than 200 communities across the US bringing you reactions from hometown supporters.

Starting today, USA TODAY will publish a special Olympics section every day, Monday through Friday, through Aug. 9.

Our graphics team is building visualizations to help you better follow the Games, everything from a guide to the 42 Olympic venues to a breakdown of Simone Biles' gravity-defying moves. Plus we've got a database of every U.S. athlete, searchable by sport and state.

Our photographers always deliver stunning images. You can follow their work on our site or on Instagram with the #USATokyoPhoto tag. (Here's a list of who they are, and what they're covering).

If you want recaps, we hope you'll subscribe to our Olympics newsletter or sign up to get behind-the-scenes Olympic news by text. You can also rewatch all of our Olympic athlete takeovers on Instagram here. In the USA TODAY app, you can learn about the Games in augmented reality.

So yes, these will be known as the COVID Olympics, but we also know there will be records stretched (U.S. women's basketball is a favorite for gold with 49 consecutive wins), stunning athleticism (see: Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky) and history made (with new events in skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing).

And we're here – and there – to bring it all to you.

"It’s such a privilege to be here, still," said reporter Chris Bumbaca, who made it to his hotel after a five-hour airport screening. He's covering his first Olympics. "As I look out my window at a vista of the Tokyo skyline, it’s hard not to pinch myself."

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: COVID threatens Summer Games, athletes ready to compete

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