Jill Biden brings a dose of normalcy to Olympic Games amid a pandemic

Jill Biden brings a dose of normalcy to Olympic Games amid a pandemic
Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

At a very not-normal Olympic Games kick-off, first lady Jill Biden was, outside of the athletes themselves, perhaps the only normal part.

With Covid-19 cases here spiking, more than 11,000 competitors from 206 countries are navigating the games after a year-long postponement, without fans in the stands and under stress-inducing pandemic precautions. However, the first lady spent her two and a half days in Tokyo on a mission to put the concerns over coronavirus in second place and Team USA in first.

Before the actual events started, Biden oohed and aahed over the American athletes. She told a group of a dozen or so during a virtual meet-up — she from the US Chargé d’Affaires residence at the United States Embassy compound, they from their individual rooms at Olympic Village, or their training centers, miles away — how proud she was of them.

“For most of you, the journey to Tokyo began long, long ago. It likely started at a young age. The first time you picked up a ball or jumped in the water. The first ride that made you feel really free. Or when the backflip you thought was impossible suddenly wasn’t,” Biden said. “You’ve given up so much to be here. You’ve sacrificed time with friends and pushed yourself harder than you thought you could.”

At the opening ceremonies, it was Biden — one of just 950 VIPs invited to attend in person in an arena meant to hold tens of thousands — who jumped up when it was Team USA’s turn to enter the venue. Earlier that day, Biden had told Sue Bird, the American basketball star and flag-bearer, “You are one amazing woman!”

“I’m really excited for this game aren’t you? As you can see I’m all decked out,” Biden gushed the next day at a USA-Mexico softball game viewing for embassy staff and their families back at the gilded reception room at the residence, where she was the consummate Olympics watch-party hostess, lamenting she couldn’t serve snacks and drinks. Due to Covid-19 protocols, that wasn’t possible. “I feel so terrible that we can’t offer you food — and a glass of wine — but they said ‘no.'”

At the games Friday night, she gave a pep talk to the American 3-on-3 women’s basketball team before their match against France (USA won). In the swimming venue, she cheered back when a group of USA swimmers in the stands began a “Doc-tor Bi-den!” chant. She stayed the duration of the USA women’s soccer game against New Zealand, from which she had been scheduled to depart sooner, insisting on catching the entirety of the 6-1 win. She later tweeted a photo of herself in the virtually empty stadium made to hold 48,000 spectators, on her feet clapping, with the caption, “Hope you could hear me up here!”

For her first Olympics as first lady, she was the fan who wore almost too much USA garb, decked out in a spiffy Ralph Lauren official Team USA T-shirt, navy blazer, red, white and blue belt and matching sneakers, and white jeans with the letters U-S-A emblazoned in navy on the front of one pant leg. “As I walked down the hallway, I felt like a new kid — a kid on the first day of school. You know how you have all your new clothes, but you didn’t wash them? So these jeans are so stiff. So, note to self!”

Like many moms of Olympians past, she overdid it all just slightly — the cheering, the clapping, the swag, the euphoric pride, the tortured facial expressions over a missed goal or tight pass, a lap of swimming that came down to the wire. There weren’t arena-wide chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” but seated essentially by herself, there was Biden with a lone whoop and a cheer. She was doing it louder and harder than she might have if she weren’t the only physically present support system, a parent for all 613 of America’s Olympians. The day before her live appearance, speaking to the athletes on Zoom — which is how many of them have been communicating with their own parents or grandparents from Covid isolation at the Olympic Village — Biden, who almost always wears her gold “Nana” necklace, was the surrogate.

“Becoming an Olympian is a rare accomplishment in a normal time. But you did it during a global pandemic,” she said, going on to underscore the national unity of the Olympics at a time when America, at home, is often divided. “In these moments we are more than our cities or states or backgrounds. We are more than our jobs or our political parties.”

Pandemic looms

In the lead-up to the opening ceremonies, the world was keeping an eye on the number of Covid-19 cases reported in Tokyo, specifically among those associated with the Olympic Games. Each day it ticked upward. As of Sunday, the number of cases linked to the Olympics has risen to 137, according to the organizers. Tokyo itself is under a state of emergency for the duration of the games, with the normally packed streets sparse, restaurants and shops closed, and delegations — including the United States’ — sequestered in their hotels. Japan still has a relatively low vaccination rate.

Well over three quarters of the US athletes that are in Japan for the Olympics have received Covid-19 vaccines, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee said Friday. Yet at 83%, there’s still concern about rising infections.

One day before Biden was slated to depart Washington for Japan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if the first lady still intended to go, considering the rise in cases and the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. “There’s been no change, she’s still planning on attending the games,” Psaki said. “The President, the first lady felt it was important to have the delegation lead at the highest level. So she is looking forward to continuing her travels.”

Biden has not commented publicly on whether she hesitated about attending the games, but a White House official told CNN she has been full-steam ahead since the opportunity presented itself. “Above all else, she wants these athletes to know that their country is behind them,” the official said.

More broadly, some health experts have questioned the rationale of holding the games.

“Zero Covid is not a reasonable goal. The question is: just how many cases will be too many?,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, tweeted last week. “I want to believe these @Olympics will be safe, but I also know that we are dealing with a virus that has surprised us at every turn.”

Even the CEO of the Tokyo 2020 Games said Tuesday he wasn’t 100% certain he wouldn’t have to pull the plug on the entire Olympics if the virus suddenly became a potential superspreader event.

But if Biden had been concerned about attending the games, she didn’t let on. “I’m excited to go! Aren’t you?” she said to this reporter while boarding her government jet for Japan from Alaska, where she had stopped to do a vaccination event at a local health care center in Anchorage.

But also, diplomacy

Biden also used her trip abroad to flex some of her diplomatic muscle. The last time she attended an Olympics, it was 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, and she was second lady. This time, as first lady, she represented the United States alongside several world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who was a guest with Biden at a VIP reception at the Imperial Palace Thursday evening, invited by Japanese Emperor Naruhito. The night before, Biden was hosted for dinner at Akasaka Palace by Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga.

Back in the US on Friday, President Joe Biden told a Virginia crowd at a campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe that Jill Biden was specifically requested by the Japanese Prime Minister. “Jill wanted to be here tonight, but if you turn on the Olympics and watch Team USA, you’ll see Jill Biden standing there,” the President. “The Japanese Prime Minister, who I invited as the first person to come to the White House as a head of state, he made it real clear — he didn’t want me, he wanted her to go. He is a man of incredible judgment.”

The morning after her dinner, Biden returned to the palace to attend a workshop with Mariko Suga about the ancient ritual of incense. Later that day, in her remarks at the embassy watch party with Foreign Service Officers and their families, Biden said the lessons of Covid have had an impact on our global shared experience. “We’ve seen that the things that really connect us, like the love of competition or music or stories and the desire to protect the people we love, really transcend language and difference. And diplomacy, at its best, is a recognition of that connection,” she said.

Biden also noted embassy staff had endured what she deemed a challenging prior few years, their jobs hamstrung by more tenuous international relations. “We’re going to show the world what the United States can achieve when we are guided by heart and hope and diplomacy,” she said, nodding to what she feels is a shift in how America is perceived abroad. “Or as my husband has said, when we lead by the power of our example, not the example of our power.”

Before the watch party, she attended a small ceremony at the Chief of Mission Residence, dedicating a room in the massive home in honor of Irene Hirano Inouye and the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. The late Hawaii senator — whose wife was a champion of US and Japan relations — was, according to Biden, one of the President’s closest friends and mentor. “If at the end of life, you have five friends that you can count … you’re really a lucky person,” she said. “I think that Danny Inouye, I know that Danny Inouye, would be one of them,” she said of her husband’s relationship with the late senator.

Biden’s varied diplomatic events in Japan were a good barometer for what is ahead for her global platform, indicating she intends to be an effective emissary for the President.

But despite her time at the palaces, in the presence of powerful world leaders, Biden remained focused on her primary mission: cheerleader mom for America’s Olympians. When Friday’s Zoom talk with the athletes ended, and the cameras were turned off, lights and equipment rolled away, Biden looked over at the three-person press pool present to document her trip and said talking to the athletes was surprisingly “emotional.”

“It meant a lot to me. And to Joe. It should be exciting to watch the events,” she said.

Then she turned to the handful of embassy staff who helped prep the virtual conversation with Team USA, thanking them. “Am I allowed to shake hands?” she asked, knowing the answer would be “no,” instead offering her elbow for a bump. “Just pretend these are hugs.”

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