It shouldn’t be this complicated. Attending the Olympics to cheer on Team USA is one of the most joyous, noncontroversial traditions of being the first lady of the United States. Nearly every recent occupant of the role has done it and loved it: Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama. But none of them has stared down an Olympics as fraught with challenges as the one Jill Biden is at in Tokyo right now.
That is to say, none of them had to travel to a city where a pandemic has declared a state of emergency; where lifelong dreams have been shattered by a virus; where spectators and athletes’ families are prohibited; where a plague of oysters has descended on the canoeing and rowing course; and, oh, where a bear was discovered wandering inside the softball venue just hours before.
No other first lady has announced she’s going to the Games and then had to confirm a week later that she was, indeed, still going — because, well, the parade of calamities was starting to resemble the plot of “Macbeth.”
It would have been totally within reason for her to stay home and binge gymnastics with the White House butlers and a box of Cheez-Its.
Instead, Biden made this troubled Olympics her first solo trip abroad as first lady.
“I think that’s pretty cool. That’s dope,” says Will Claye, a long jumper and triple jumper from Arizona who’s won three medals and is competing inhis third Games. “Even in this type of situation that we’re in, for her to still want to come out there and be there with us says a lot about the people that are running our country.”
In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, Biden has chosen to practice the art of simply showing up. It’s a risk, both from a covid safety standpoint and a public relations one, should the delta variant sweep through the Olympic Village and this whole thing be determined a terrible idea. For American athletes, though, who have no other support system present, the president’s wife flying halfway around the world to wave a flag for them might just be the kind of showing up they need.
Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympic gymnast who won gold with the “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, views Biden as a stand-in for the sold-out crowds that athletes often feed off during their performances. According to Dawes, Biden’s presence “means a lot.” “And I believe it will mean even more for these Olympic Games because no one will be in the stands.”
Jill Biden will be in attendance. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was instrumental in bringing the Olympics to Tokyo and memorably dressed up as Super Mario to promote the Games, will not be present. In the aftermath of fevered protests against the Games in Tokyo, major Japanese firms including Toyota — Toyota! — and Panasonic have opted not to send representatives to the Opening Ceremonies. She’s going at a time when even Japan’s parliamentarians are split on whether or not to go.
And she’s overjoyed about it. When asked if she was looking forward to the games by a reporter as she boarded her jet to Tokyo, she said, “Yes, aren’t you?” “I’ll see you there!” says the narrator.
Biden was accompanied to Tokyo by 13 members of his staff, one of whom had the ominous title of director of covid-19 principal protection.
Everything has been determined by the virus’s specter. Biden’s three-day trip to Tokyo, which includes dinner with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and a meeting with Emperor Naruhito, is wedged between visits to military bases and vaccination facilities in Alaska and Hawaii, highlighting the domestic conflict. Biden is joined by only one other member of the American delegation: Raymond Greene, the temporary head of the US mission in Japan, who is already in Tokyo. Her press corps is only allowed to leave their Tokyo hotel in the first lady’s motorcade.
The traditional pre-Games meeting with the athletes was virtual. “I love seeing you! You must be so excited!” she told Eddie Alvarez, a baseball player, short track speed skater, and U.S. flag bearer for Opening Ceremonies, as she spoke on a screen to 25 members of Team USA. When Allison Schmitt, a four-time Olympic swimmer, told Biden she was getting her master’s as a mental health advocate, Biden told her, “Go for the doctorate.”
In a speech, Biden praised the athletes’ drive and faith and emphasized the unity of the team, beyond their backgrounds and politics. “Becoming an Olympian is a rare accomplishment in a normal time,” she said. “But you did it during a global pandemic.”
Biden watched the Opening Ceremonies from a plexiglass booth in an empty stadium, save for the few invited guests, and will attend a few events on Saturday.
The question of whether this trip was necessary, or even wise, is hard to ignore.
For one, “there’s a risk that this will become a superspreader event,” Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, told The Post. For another, the Japanese public sees Suga as directly responsible for the fact that only 20 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Dining with him, after Biden spent the past two months crisscrossing the United States trying to sway the unvaccinated, seems like a contradiction.
“Why would she want to associate herself with this slow-moving train wreck when most domestic corporate sponsors are shunning them and the public is decidedly opposed?” Kingston said.
Maybe the answer is simple. The road to these delayed, restricted Olympics has been hard for athletes, and Biden’s presence might just make it a little bit better. Having her lead the delegation indicates just how important the Olympics are to the administration, says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies first ladies. Presidential spouses typically get more press attention than any other surrogates. “It signals that we’re sending one of the most important representatives that we have, and the most important confidante of the president, at a time when the president and vice president are tackling really thorny policy issues at home,” says Wright.
This isn’t Biden’s first trip to the Olympics. When her husband was vice president, they jointly lead the delegation to the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010. “I remember it being very cold and she was such a good sport,” says Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who accompanied the Bidens on that trip. At a reception, Jill Biden went around the room hugging and encouraging every athlete in the room. “Every sport we attended, you would think was her favorite, because she realized that the team members were looking at her. And if she looked like she wasn’t interested, well, then that sends a terrible message.”
Each first lady has taken a different tack on her Olympics visits, except for Melania Trump, who never went. (In 2018, President Donald Trump‘s daughter and White House senior staffer, Ivanka Trump, went to the PyeongChang Winter Games. And the Trump administration was, of course, out of office by the time Tokyo 2020 actually happened.)
As for the others, “Hillary Clinton was and remains an Olympics nut,” says her former press secretary, Lisa Caputo, who went with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Unlike Biden and Obama’s quick trips, Clinton brought her daughter Chelsea, then 14, and spent almost a week running around to several different venues a day, catching men’s hockey, downhill skiing, speed skating, luge, even curling.
She woke up everyone to go skiing at 5 every morning, and loved wandering the grounds with Chelsea trading enamel pins with other Olympics enthusiasts, says Capricia Marshall, who went to Lillehammer as the Clintons’ White House social secretary.
One day, they got word that a U.S. skier was winning and high-tailed it over there just in time to see Tommy Moe receive a gold medal. “It was hysterical, because everyone’s running in their snowsuits and winter jackets to get there in time,” says Marshall. It was freezing cold and Clinton, in particular, was “bundled like the kid from ‘A Christmas Story.’ She could barely walk.”
While another member of the delegation, Florence Griffith-Joyner, began grumbling about the bitter weather, Moe, the surprise gold medallist, recalls Clinton cheerfully smiling through the cold to take a picture with him. In an interview, Moe said, “I suppose [Flo-Jo] was freezing her buttocks off since it was probably 5 degrees below zero.”
Michelle Obama was also up for it. Melissa Winter, Obama’s chief of staff, recalls seeing her boss being carried off the ground by Elena Pirizhkova, a 5-foot-5 female wrestler, during a brunch for US athletes in London in 2012.who is almost 6 feet tall, like she was carrying the first lady over the threshold of a honeymoon suite.
“We all came to a halt,” Winter adds. The Secret Service sought Obama for guidance on how to handle the situation. Then Obama began to laugh, and everyone became more relaxed. “I think she was taken aback, but she was clearly enjoying herself,” Winter adds.
Laura Bush, dubbed the “Comforter in Chief” by The Washington Post, may be Biden’s closest analog at these weird Games. Bush led delegations to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where she watched Michael Phelps win one of his eight gold medals (as part of the United States’ incredible 31-medal haul) and Larsen Jensen, a Danish gymnast, compete.
Jenson’s family had been unable to make the trip to see him, “so he took the flowers that were handed to him and ran them up to the stand to Mrs. Bush,” says McBride. “He said, ‘My mother can’t be here. And I’m so glad you are here. Thank you.’ It was a stunning moment for all of us because he really just ran out from the pedestal to her and said that.”
In that case, at least, showing up was enough.