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Tokyo Olympic Games Grapple With Pandemic Safety Protocols

Competition got underway Wednesday in Tokyo for the pandemic-delayed Summer Olympics — two days before the Opening Ceremony. Participants are streaming into Japan under heightened COVID-19 concerns.

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Transcript:

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Olympic Games are on in Tokyo. Now, the opening ceremony hasn't started yet, but some of the competitions have, including the U.S. women's soccer match between Sweden. It, however, is definitely not a normal year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NPR's Tom Goldman is in Tokyo covering his 13th Olympic Games for us. And I know it's early, Tom, but how does Tokyo compare so far?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Well, this is a strange one, A, strangest by far from what I've experienced. Usually, in this week before the Olympic opening ceremony, there's this buzz in the host city. There's anticipation. There are lots of visual reminders that this massive event is about to unfold. And I'm just not seeing that. Now, granted, my NPR colleagues and I are coming out of four days of quarantine since we landed in Tokyo. But the initial impressions are it's awfully quiet for a runup to the games. Some of that's related to Japanese displeasure, you could say, about these games. We've heard a lot about the polls that show a majority of the public here just doesn't want these Olympics.

MARTINEZ: And the quiet you mentioned - because of COVID restrictions?

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah. Definitely. There's that. That's a big reason. For the few fans who can attend some events, there's no cheering, no singing, no chanting allowed. Most events have no fans at all. There are plans to pipe in some sound at venues. But it's interesting. Today, Japan started off the Olympic competition with a big softball win over Australia, 8-1. The Japanese won. One report from the stadium in Fukushima said that when the Japanese players hit home runs, all you could hear were buzzing cicadas and polite applause from the team staff.

MARTINEZ: Maybe that's how cicadas cheer. I mean, can't take...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: ...Off the table. Now, obviously, the pandemic having a big effect, calling - it's called a pandemic Olympics, at least by some. How are you seeing that, Tom, play out other than no spectators?

GOLDMAN: Well, one big thing is you're seeing daily increases in positive tests. As of today, there have been at least 79 people connected to the Tokyo Games who've tested positive for coronavirus since July 1, including at least six athletes. At an IOC meeting today in Tokyo, the head of the World Health Organization said these Olympics shouldn't be judged by the number of positive cases, but instead how infections are handled. There are strict protocols, so far no outbreaks that we know of. But, you know, I got to tell you, A, our personal experience has made some of us question the promises we keep hearing from Olympic organizers that everyone's going to be safe. We've been tested daily. The collection process for our tests has been erratic. And we've talked to other journalists who've been able to, essentially, talk their way out of being quarantined when they got to Japan.

MARTINEZ: Yikes. All right. Now, in another yikes - double yikes - you mentioned that games are going on. The opening game - the opening match between the U.S. women's soccer team and Sweden happened.

GOLDMAN: It certainly did, and what a stunner. The No. 1 ranked, two-time defending World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team - you know, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and the gang - they got thumped by Sweden, three-nil, in their first match of the tournament. Remember, Sweden knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics, denying the U.S. a medal. So Sweden right now, apparently, has the Americans' number. It's only the first game, and the U.S. has time to recover. But, obviously, not a good way to start as they try to become the first women's team to follow-up a World Cup win with an Olympic gold medal.

MARTINEZ: U.S. women plays New Zealand on Saturday. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in Tokyo. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "TREMOLO + DELAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.