Jill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics

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First lady Jill Biden is heading to the closely watched Tokyo Olympics, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, despite COVID-19 concerns in the host city.

In her first solo international trip as first lady, Biden will go to a city that has entered a new state of emergency over a rise in coronavirus cases to represent the U.S. and support the athletes when the Olympics open on Friday.

Biden has spent her first six months as first lady in a starring role selling the White House’s legislative priorities to the public and encouraging vaccines, embarking on regular trips domestically to cities including Savannah, Ga.; Portland, Maine; and Portsmouth, N.H. She has also revived a military families initiative she started as second lady with then-first lady Michelle Obama a decade ago. 

Still, the three-day Olympics visit promises to further elevate her profile on an international scale. 

Biden is scheduled to meet virtually with members of Team USA and attend the opening ceremony in Tokyo on Friday. She’ll host a watch party for the U.S.-Mexico softball game on Saturday with foreign service officers at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, before leaving the Games. Biden will also break bread with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga.

Biden’s trip will be bookended with visits to both Alaska and Hawaii to encourage vaccinations. 

The first lady, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, is headed to an Olympics overshadowed by coronavirus concerns. 

The Tokyo Olympics, which were initially postponed to 2021 last year as the coronavirus spread around the globe, will look incredibly different this year due to the pandemic. A rise in COVID-19 cases in Tokyo is also preventing leaders from ruling out a last-minute cancellation of the events, which attract people from all over the world. A handful of athletes have tested positive for the virus in the days leading up to the Games. 

The majority of the athletes attending are expected to be vaccinated, though vaccines are not required. 

The organizers announced earlier this month that there would be no spectators allowed at most of the venues, after the Japanese government announced a new COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo that coincides with the Games. 

Thousands of athletes and staff will be given daily temperature checks and those competing in the Games will undergo COVID-19 testing before and during the Games. Those who test positive will be required to isolate and their close contacts will be traced.  

The individuals participating in the ceremonial Olympic torch relay will wear masks and are being told to refrain from talking loudly. 

Still, some health experts believe the Games should have been canceled altogether. 

“The way I see it, this is both a joyless Olympics and a highly dangerous Olympics,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “It’s coming in the middle of a pandemic with huge global suffering and there’s no audience, and it’s highly risky because it has all of the ingredients that can amplify the pandemic.” 

“I do think the protocols they’re using are the best they can do under those circumstances, but these Olympics should have been postponed,” Gostin said. 

The Biden administration’s footprint will be small, with the first lady and Raymond Greene, the charge d’affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, making up the small presidential delegation to the Games.

“While she is leading this delegation — because it was important to the president and the first lady that we cheer on our athletes and show support for the United States at the highest level — it is a delegation of two. Usually it is a much larger delegation. They will have limited public interaction, and they will be taking every precaution throughout the course of the visit,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. 

Gostin didn’t disagree with Biden’s decision to attend the events but argued it will be important for her to model safe behavior by masking, distancing and conveying the need for mitigation measures.

The trip will be Biden’s second official visit to the Olympics. More than a decade ago, the Bidens led the U.S. delegation to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, when President Biden was vice president.

Other recent first ladies, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton, also attended the Olympics while in office. Obama went to the 2012 London Olympics and Bush went to the 2006 Torino Olympics. Clinton attended the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. delegation for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics was led by then-Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence and Ivanka Trump, former President Trump’s daughter.

The last time a president has personally attended the Olympics was when former President George W. Bush went to Beijing in 2008. Beijing is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is already surrounded by controversy. Pence earlier this month said President Biden should call for the Olympics to be moved and Republican lawmakers raised concerns about Olympians using the digital yuan during the Games.

In Tokyo, COVID-19 reached the Olympic Village earlier this week and athletes have already dropped out after testing positive. As of Tuesday, 71 COVID-19 cases have been identified as connected to the Tokyo Olympics.

For the U.S. athletes, tennis player Coco Gauff and basketball player Katie Lou Samuelson will miss the Games after contracting the virus and Kara Eaker, an alternate on the women’s gymnastics team, also tested positive.

Jill Biden’s willingness to still attend the Games highlights her and the president’s focus on compassion coming from the White House, argued Katherine Sibley, a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University.

“There’s this effort for her to be visible at a time when people really want to see that America cares about them. There’s been a lot of controversy around this — and there’s Jill Biden. She’s coming regardless of possible danger to herself or risk of illness. She is empathizing with those who are in a difficult spot,” she said.

She follows in the footsteps of other recent first ladies who went on solo international trips in response to global crises of the time. 

Clinton went to a United Nations conference in Beijing and gave a speech on women’s rights violations in China. Bush went alone to Afghanistan to push for schools to reopen for girls. 

“There’s a connection with the coronavirus, problematic things are happening in Japan. To me, it’s quite interesting and there is still this strong sense of her caring and her connection to people and she’s going despite concerns about coronavirus,” Sibley said.

“It underlines both her interest in travel and being around to show that she cares about people,” she added. “This is a particularly sensitive kind of Olympics with everything going on and regardless, she’s going to be there and she’s going to be visible in this way.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Ivanka Trump Jen Psaki Jill Biden Joe Biden Karen Pence Michelle Obama Mike Pence Tokyo Olympics

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