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Olympians now have a smidgeon of extra incentive to make it to the medal stand.
That's one of the only places the International Olympic Committee is allowing them to temporarily go without masks during the Tokyo Games.
The IOC made a mid-Games rule change on Sunday, relaxing its draconian victory ceremony protocol to allow athletes on the podium to briefly remove their masks for a physically distanced photo opportunity. The athletes still must remain six feet apart on their own platforms while celebrating the proudest moment of their careers and must put their masks back on within 30 seconds.
That's the only time during medal ceremonies that athletes are allowed to be maskless, but the IOC on Sunday did make one other modest concession. The silver and bronze medalists now have permission to join the winner for a group photo on the podium's gold-medal step.
The comically intricate protocol is a reminder that little about these COVID Olympics feels normal. Fans are barred from the stands. Athletes must leave their families at home. Hugs, handshakes and high-fives are discouraged. So is venturing anywhere besides competition venues and a limited list of preapproved locations.
The tweaks to the victory ceremony protocol are likely a response to athletes openly violating the rules by removing their masks and posing side-by-side with their fellow medalists. American swimmer Chase Kalisz said someone even directed him to remove his mask on the podium on Sunday when he took the picture below.
"So, um, I can’t speak for what the proper protocol was, but he had a sign that said ‘mask off’ and ‘mask on,’” the gold medal-winning swimmer said.
The COVID restrictions at the Olympics are stricter than those elsewhere in the world because Japan has been slower to vaccinate than other developed countries. A little over 35% of Japan is now partially vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, compared to 70% of Canada, 68% of the United Kingdom, 58% of Germany and 56% of the U.S.
While the medal stand restrictions are more symbolic than anything else, the spread of the virus has kept a number of athletes from participating in Tokyo. Just this past weekend alone, the golf competition lost stars Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau to positive COVID tests.
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