The hope of Olympic glory for five Dutch athletes has been dashed after they tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Tokyo, disqualifying them from taking part in the Olympic Games and sending them straight into isolation. But the matter of just where and when these five athletes were infected has left Dutch flag carrier KLM facing awkward questions and insisting it didn’t happen on one of its flights.
All five athletes travelled to Tokyo on July 17 on the same flight. The entire team had to take pre-departure COVID-19 tests which had come back negative and they were escorted through Amsterdam’s Schipol airport in a secure ‘bubble’ away from other passengers and anyone else who might infect them.
But Dutch media claim the bubble burst as soon as they stepped foot onboard KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight KL861. The athletes and support team were spread around the plane, they sat around normal passengers and even athletes from other countries that had been routed through Schipol including teams from India, Ecuador and Chile.
Reshmie Oogink, a Dutch taekwondo athlete, says she heard someone coughing onboard the flight. She tested positive four days after arriving in Tokyo. At 31 years old, she fears Tokyo will be her last Olympic Games. She had even overcome major knee injuries to compete in the Games.
The focus has fallen on flight KL861 and whether asymptomatic cabin crew might be the cause of so many infections. Unlike passengers, the Japanese authorities don’t require flight crew to take a COVID-19 test before departure. They are, however, subject to routine temperature testing.
A spokesperson for KLM has strongly refuted that flight KL861 was the reason why so many athletes in Team NL have had their Olympic dreams ripped away from them.
Describing the recent positive cases amongst the team as “very regrettable” a spokesperson maintained that “there are no indications that this happened on board the aircraft”.
“Research by the WHO and IATA shows that the risk of being infected with a virus on board an aircraft is low. This was also recently confirmed by a study by the Dutch Royal NLR together with RIVM (Dutch Health Authority),” the airline explained in an emailed statement.
KLM said that “enquiries” made after the return of the crew revealed that they weren’t infected with COVID-19. “KLM always takes the safety and health of passengers and crew very seriously and takes extra measures on board to reduce the risk of contamination,” the statement continued.
The Dutch sports governing body NOC has also jumped to KLM’s defence with technical director Maurits Hendriks saying there were a number of places the athletes could have been infected. One theory is that they were infected while waiting in long lines for COVID-19 testing at Tokyo’s Narita airport.
Some in the Netherlands say Team NL should have travelled to Tokyo on a charter flight without normal passengers to avoid the risk of mid-flight transmission. That, however, hasn’t worked out well for the Czech team who flew to Tokyo on a specially arranged charter flight but is now battling a major COVID-19 cluster.
Local media claim an unvaccinated team doctor who was using mouthwash to combat the risk of Coronavirus infection may be the cause of the outbreak.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.