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For those who dream of Olympic gold, the image is alive in the imagination long before it can actually be: Standing atop a podium, head bowed, the hands of an Olympic official coming close to drape a medal around your head and neck.

It is a scene almost as treasured as the Games themselves.

And it is a scene you won’t see if you tune in this year.

In our second summer of COVID-19, the familiar and traditional medal ceremony won’t look the same, just as many other Olympics rituals and patterns will undergo necessary changes. As stipulated in the most recent playbook issued by organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Games, ceremonies will now feature “trays with medals and gifts” that “will be placed on a table or a stand.” Athletes are “to take the medals and gifts from the trays, and will have no contact with the presenters.”

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In conclusion, athletes will remain “on their own podium module during the entire duration of the ceremony” and “there will be no group photo on the gold medal podium.”

Welcome to the COVID Games.

Of all the amazing sporting feats about to be on display, the most amazing this summer may be that the Games are happening at all. Athletes have been training hard, often on their own, and in a state of suspended disbelief.

The iconic Olympic medal ceremonies will look quite different in Tokyo.
The iconic Olympic medal ceremonies will look quite different in Tokyo.EPA

“Honestly I think it’s one of those things that I don’t know that I fully believed [would] happen till we were on the plane,” Olympian Kristi Kirshe said in a recent interview with the Globe. “After what happened last year . . . I told myself I refused to put all my eggs in one basket until we’re on the plane.”

The Franklin native did indeed head off to Tokyo this past week as part of the USA women’s rugby team, but after a yearlong delay and ongoing question marks, her doubts spoke to the emotional journey she and her fellow athletes endured these past 12-plus months, one that careened through uncertainty and hope with equal force.

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And, yet, it’s the Olympics. The fulfillment of an athletic dream, which guarantees it is a trip to be treasured no matter how many protocols or hurdles might get in the way.

“We’re all so excited just to get the opportunity to play,” Kirshe said, “that we’ll do whatever is necessary to make it happen.”

And what they have to do would have been unimaginable in pre-COVID times, from the quarantining and testing to the on-site restrictions that range from social distancing to limited freedom of movement to mask-wearing to an almost immediate departure from the Olympic Village and Japan once their competition is done. And all of it knowing it could be for naught anyway, that one positive test could prevent them from competing at all, that even a teammate’s positive test could put them in jeopardy due to contact tracing.

Not every athlete has to be vaccinated, but they all have to be tested regularly and follow mask and social distancing guidelines.

Despite stringent measures in Japan to prevent the spread of the virus, headlines continue to be written like the one Thursday about an outbreak among workers in a hotel where part of the Brazilian athlete delegation is staying, another about restaurants installing curfews and banning alcohol sales, or other ground-shaking ones like the complete removal of spectators, both foreign and domestic, in response to rising infection rates — a ban that reversed plans to have capacity limits that would have at least allowed local residents to attend.

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COVID restrictions remain tight in Japan, with cases back on the rise through the summer.
COVID restrictions remain tight in Japan, with cases back on the rise through the summer.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

“As I’m sure you can imagine, COVID-19 is still headline news, still presenting a unique environment and having a profound impact on everything we’re doing as we approach the Games,” US Olympic & Paralympic Committee chair Susanne Lyons said in a recent teleconference. “I do want to tell you though, that Team USA is ready, ready to make our country proud, and ready to compete.

“Our priority is to execute the Games successfully and safely, and we’ve spent a fair amount of time on athlete well-being, which is really critical, especially during this time of significant stress leading up to the Games.”

It’s been a long and winding road, dating to March, 2020, when COVID-19 dominoes began tumbling and the sports world started shutting down. As tough as that was for professional athletes who saw their livelihoods put on pause, the ripple effect on Olympic hopefuls was far tougher to track and gauge.

Without the backing of well-oiled management structures such as the NBA, NFL, or NHL, many athletes were left to their own devices, or to the whims of their individual governing bodies. The inconsistencies were more akin to life in the NCAA, which just happens to be the default training ground for so many Olympic hopefuls.

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Take the men’s gymnastics team as an example. Stanford’s Brody Malone, the all-around winner at the US trials, had to leave California, where gyms were closed and restrictions in place, and joined a handful of teammates working out at a gym in Cypress, Texas, where COVID-19 constraints were comparatively lax.

Or the case of second-place all-around finisher Yul Moldauer, who worked around Oklahoma’s stay-at-home orders by joining his roommates and installing gymnastics equipment in their garage. Moldauer described it at the time to his local Fox23 television station as “just a one-door garage, but this is what it is right now. Here’s the horse. See, this is the outside, and these are the rings.”

National Stadium in Tokyo will be empty of fans even once the Olympic Games begin Friday because of the ongoing pandemic and rising infection rates.
National Stadium in Tokyo will be empty of fans even once the Olympic Games begin Friday because of the ongoing pandemic and rising infection rates.234149+0900/Associated Press

“The hardest part of staying in shape was last summer,” Kirshe said. “Once we found out the Games were postponed, we were off for a few months, and I was in Boston from April through the end of July.

“That was hard, being back home, training on my own, training with a few friends in the area. We came back into training at the beginning of August, in a pretty restrictive bubble, working with small groups of six, that way in case a group had to get shut down the others could still work.”

Clearly, for all the skill and athletic prowess needed to make these Games, resourcefulness and patience have been largely in play as well, along with caution and care.

Just ask sprinter Gabby Thomas, the former Harvard standout who took the track and field trials by storm with the second-fastest 200 in history. She’s scheduled to depart for Tokyo July 24. But not before following all the rules.

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“It’s very extensive,” she said. “But I have it all lined up, with my calendar alerts all set.”

The COVID Games, coming soon to a television set near you, unlike any the world has witnessed before.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.