Jill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics

First lady Jill BidenJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - High-profile COVID-19 infections spark new worries COVID-19 anxiety eclipses Olympics as athletes test positive Biden says Eid al-Adha carries 'special meaning' amid pandemic MORE is heading to the closely-watched 2021 Olympic Summer Games where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, despite COVID-19 concerns in Tokyo.

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.

Jill 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 ObamaJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama to adapt memoir 'Dreams From My Father' for young readers Harris emerges as main GOP foil on campaign trail Jill Biden to lead US delegation at Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony MORE 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.

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 cancelled 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 PsakiJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsJen PsakiBiden pokes at Fox hosts: They've had 'altar call' on vaccines Fox News airs PSA telling viewers 'get the vaccine' Psaki says WH will disclose COVID-19 positive officials who come in contact with Biden, Harris MORE 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 Jill 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 Joe BidenJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsJoe BidenBiden says wages will need to increase to solve recruitment problems Caitlyn Jenner pledges to support Trump if he makes another bid for the White House Biden: Republicans who say Democrats want to defund the police are lying MORE was vice president and Jill Biden was second lady.

Other recent first ladies, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hilary 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, Ga.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. delegation was led by former Vice President Mike PenceJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsMichael (Mike) Richard PencePoll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Guess who undermined public confidence in vaccines? Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE, Second Lady Karen PenceJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsKaren Sue PencePence refused to leave Capitol during riot: book Doug Emhoff carves out path as first second gentleman Pence buys .9M home in Indiana MORE, and first daughter Ivanka TrumpJill Biden takes starring role at difficult OlympicsIvanka TrumpTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Mary Trump: Ivanka 'much less likely to stay loyal' to father than Weisselberg Trump is on the ballot whether his name is there or not MORE for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The last time a president has personally attended the Olympics was George W. Bush, who went to Beijing in 2008. Beijing is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is already surrounded by controversy. Pence earlier this month said 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.

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.”