Men's rowing team in actionAthletes are being tested every day for COVID-19.AP: Lee Jin-man


With the Olympic Games underway in Tokyo, a shadow hangs over the competition as the host city is in a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Already several athletes have tested positive inside the Olympic Village, and more than 100 people accredited for the Games have coronavirus.

As everyone metaphorically holds their breath for the next 16 days, hoping that the outbreak does not spread within the village, the question is: what happens if an athlete tests positive during competition?

The IOC’s executive board released details earlier this month, setting out how the Games would handle the issue.

There were three key principles agreed in deciding the process for sports:

  • No athlete who tests positive should be disqualified for COVID-19 reasons, instead they should be marked “did not start”, or an equivalent
  • The athlete or team’s result should be protected, meaning that they register the furthest point they could get in competition before being isolated
  • Where possible, an athlete or team that cannot compete should be replaced by the next most eligible, and allow events to go ahead and where possible decide medals in live competition

What does this mean in practice? For example, take the most high-profile event on the Olympic program, the men’s 100 metres final.

What happens if an athlete makes it through the semi-final, and then tests positive ahead of the final?

The Sports-Specific Regulations (SSR) released by the IOC say:

“As track and field events are held over multiple days, in case of an athlete being unable to compete because of a positive COVID-19 case, in track events the best next-best placed athletes from the previous round will be brought forward to replace that athlete in the next phase.”

There are three semi-finals in the 100m, with the winner and runner-up of each race advancing automatically to the final plus the two fastest non-qualifiers.

So this would mean that a hypothetical runner reaching the final before testing positive would be replaced by the third-fastest competitor from the three semi-finals outside the top two in each race.

If there were more than one athlete to test positive, the count-back would continue to the next fastest competitor.

Then there are the events that are single races — the men’s and women’s 10,000m has no heats or semi-finals, neither do both men’s and women’s marathon and all race walks.

If someone tests positive, the event will go ahead with one less athlete.

For field events such as the long jump, triple jump, high jump, pole vault, javelin, shot put and hammer throw, where possible an athlete who can’t compete in a final will be replaced by the next best-placed athlete.

In swimming, the IOC says:

“An athlete or relay team who are not able to compete due to COVID-19 will not be disqualified and will be marked as DNS (did not start). In case an athlete/relay team must be removed from the semi-finals or finals, they will be replaced by the designated reserves in the respective events.”

Other sports differ in rules

In individual or doubles events, like tennis, boxing, and table tennis, there are different approaches.

If any of the competitors in tennis test positive during competition, they will be marked as a walkover. Their opponent will receive a bye through to the next round. It’s not clear what this would mean if this happens at the semi-final stage.

In boxing, an athlete who tests positive will be treated as a walkover during competition. Their opponent will receive a bye, however the IOC states:

“If an athlete cannot compete in the final due to COVID-19 the bout will not go ahead and the athlete who can no longer compete will receive the silver medal and the opponent will be awarded the gold medal to protect the safety of the athletes.”

In the new sport of 3×3 basketball, if a team cannot play in the quarter-final, their opponents go through to the semi-final.

If a team tests positive before the semi-final, the bronze medal game is cancelled and the loser of the other semi-final receives a bronze medal. If it happens for the final, the affected team will be given the silver medal and their opponents the gold.

Looking at the traditional basketball event, if a team cannot compete in the semi-finals, they will be replaced by the team that lost to them in the quarter-final. The eliminated team will be classified fourth, sharing the position with the team that loses the bronze-medal game.

If a team tests positive before the bronze medal match, they will not be replaced, and the other team gets the medal. If it happens in the final, the team eliminated will receive the silver medal, and the second finalist gets the gold.

So hypothetically, if the Boomers or another team make a run to the gold medal game, and a member of the US team tests positive before the final, then Australia or another country could get the Olympic title without a single free-throw or three-pointer being attempted.

There is one intriguing line in the IOC’s regulations, relating to football, which takes in competitions involving the Olyroos and Matildas.

“If a match cannot be played or is abandoned as a result of force majeure, FIFA shall decide on the matter at its sole discretion and take whatever action is deemed necessary,” it reads.