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The competition kicked off in Tokyo on Wednesday for the pandemic-delayed Summer Olympics two days before the opening ceremony. Participants pour into Japan amid heightened concerns about COVID-19.


The Olympics are in Tokyo. Now, the opening ceremony hasn’t started yet, but some competitions have, including the US women’s soccer match between Sweden. However, it is certainly not a normal year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. NPR’s Tom Goldman is in Tokyo to cover his 13th Olympics 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, by far the strangest of what I’ve been through. Usually, in this week before the Olympic opening ceremony, there is a buzz in the host city. There is anticipation. There are many visual reminders that this massive event is about to unfold. And I just don’t see it. Granted, my NPR colleagues and I have come out of four days of quarantine since we landed in Tokyo. But first impressions are that it is eerily quiet for a run-up to the games. Part of that has to do with the Japanese displeasure, you might say, about these games. We’ve heard a lot about the polls showing that a majority of the public just doesn’t want these Olympics.

MARTINEZ: And the silence you mentioned – because of COVID restrictions?

GOLDMAN: Oh, yes. Surely. There it is. That’s a big reason. For the few fans who can attend some events, no cheering, no singing, no chanting is allowed. Most events have no fans at all. There are plans to inject some noise on stages. But it’s interesting. Today, Japan opened the Olympic competition with a big softball win over Australia, 8-1. The Japanese won. A report from the Fukushima stadium said that when the Japanese players hit home runs, all you heard was buzzing crickets and polite applause from the team staff.

MARTINEZ: Maybe crickets are cheering like that. I mean, I can’t stand it…

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: …off the table. Obviously, the pandemic is having a big impact and calling – it’s being called a pandemic Olympics, at least by some. How do you see that, Tom, playing other than no spectators?

GOLDMAN: Well, one important thing is that you see an increase in positive tests on a daily basis. As of today, at least 79 people have joined the Tokyo Games since July 1, who have tested positive for coronavirus, including at least six athletes. Speaking at an IOC meeting in Tokyo today, the head of the World Health Organization said these Olympics should not be judged by the number of positive cases, but by the way infections are handled. There are strict protocols, no outbreaks that we know of so far. But, you know, I have to tell you, A, our personal experience has made some of us question the promises we keep hearing from Olympic organizers that everyone will be safe. We are tested daily. The collection process for our tests was erratic. And we spoke to other journalists who essentially managed to talk their way out of their quarantine when they arrived in Japan.

MARTINEZ: Right. Okay. Now, in another yikes – double yikes – you said there are games going on. The opening game – the opening game between the US women’s soccer team and Sweden took place.

GOLDMAN: It certainly did, and what a blast. The #1 ranked, two-time defending World Cup champion of the U.S. women’s national soccer team — you know, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and the gang — were beaten by Sweden three nil in their first game of the tournament. Remember, Sweden knocked the US out of the 2016 Olympics and the US withheld a medal. So Sweden now apparently has the number of the Americans. It’s only the first game and the US has time to recover. But of course it’s not a good way to start as they are trying to become the first women’s team to follow up a World Cup win with an Olympic gold medal.

MARTINEZ: American women will play in New Zealand on Saturday. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in Tokyo. Thank you very much.

GOLDMAN: You’re welcome, A.


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