Faster higher stronger? Nations are refusing to let athletes skip the vaccine queue for the Tokyo Games

With organizers promising that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will continue this summer despite the ongoing global pandemic that delayed the event by a year, some nations – such as Hungary, Serbia and Israel – are continuing to inoculate their future Olympians to ensure they are free to train, qualify, travel and compete. But some – including elite athletes – question whether rapid tracking of young, healthy athletes for vaccinations should be a priority and whether it fits with Olympic values.

As vaccine delays create obstacles in the global race for Covid-19 immunity, rich countries are competing to secure more shots, less affluent runners are behind and the finish line remains a stain in the distance.

But in the midst of the battle, a growing handful of nations are controversially prioritizing a cohort of young vaccination candidates who are naturally paragons of fitness: Olympic athletes, with the Tokyo Games just six months away.

On Friday, Hungary began vaccinating athletes who could qualify for the next two Olympics: Tokyo this summer – a year late in the pandemic and now scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8 – and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, just six months later.

The Hungarian Olympic Committee said 868 athletes had been selected to receive the Moderna vaccine to facilitate their preparations for the game, with the order of priority among athletes determined by their respective training camps and qualifying tournaments.

Vaccinations for Olympic athletes are a safety issue, but in a world of motley inoculation strategies, they may also represent a sporting advantage for nations that can spare doses for their Olympic troops.

The Hungarian Olympic Committee was clear that two factors decided the issue for Hungary: “safe participation in qualifiers in foreign countries” and “loss of form due to several months of hope of training due to an infection”.

That decision put future Olympians in Hungary’s immunization queue for medical staff but together with the elderly – and before the public.

Serbia also began administering doses to its athletes on Friday, with the Balkan Ministry of Sports and Olympic Committee saying the jab “should not be mandatory but desirable to ensure the safety and health of athletes as well as the general public”.

‘We do not want it’

The head of the Italian Olympic Committee, for his part, has opposed prioritizing athletes for Covid-19 immunity.

“We already know that there are many countries where national athletes are being vaccinated,” Giovanni Malago told La Repubblica newspaper. “We will never ask for this and neither will we. An elderly person has a sacred right to be vaccinated before a 20-year-old athlete is.”

Greece’s Olympic Committee wants its athletes vaccinated, albeit after medical staff and the elderly. A spokesman told Reuters that the committee “will continue to put pressure on the Greek government to get all athletes vaccinated”.

In some countries, the gender is relatively short, which means that athletes have a certain advantage even without a boost from their Olympic committees – but other countries have not yet administered a single dose of vaccine.

Denmark has said it will vaccinate all 150 athletes and 200 officials in its delegation, but it also predicts that it will have vaccinated its entire population by 1 July.

In Israel, which leads the world in Covid-19 vaccinations per capita, half of the delegation on its way to Tokyo has already been vaccinated. The Israeli Olympic Committee said the process would be completed by the end of May, two months before the opening ceremonies in Japan.

>> Watch: Israel celebrates record-breaking Covid-19 vaccination

Seoul is awaiting Tokyo’s formal decision to move forward with the Games to make a decision for the 157 athletes who have competed in South Korea so far. “Of course, athletes should get the vaccine if they are to participate,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told Reuters.

The International Olympic Committee, for its part, has said it does not run special services for athletes.

“We have always made it clear that we are not for athletes jumping in line,” IOC chief Thomas Bach said last week during a virtual press conference. He said that “the high-risk groups, healthcare professionals and people who keep our society alive” must be “first priority and this is a principle we have established”.

“The reality is that it is up to each government to decide on vaccination and access to vaccination,” Bach said. “That is why we have asked [National Olympic Committees] to get in touch with their respective government. “

The world needs to win

While athletes who train for the Games say they are struggling to lose the uncertainty surrounding the event, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week reaffirmed his commitment to host the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. “I am determined to achieve the Games as proof of human victory against the pandemic, a symbol of global solidarity, and to give hope and courage around the world,” he told a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum on Friday.

Saga’s compatriots have seemed decisively less anxious in recent investigations, largely over concerns about the associated influx of foreign athletes, Reuters has reported. A survey by Japan’s newspaper Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 86 percent of those polled wanted the games to be postponed or suspended. The game organizers have not yet resolved the question of whether or not allowed spectators to the arenas. Tokyo and its nearby prefectures are currently in a state of emergency to stop the spread of Covid-19, and Japan has not yet announced the start of its own vaccination campaign.

More than 80 percent of Japanese say the Tokyo Olympics should be postponed or canceled, according to a new poll. © AFP / FRANCE 24

IOC member Richard Pound, the longest-serving member of the Lausanne-based committee, sparked controversy in his native Canada last month when he suggested that athletes be given priority to keep the games going and make “a wonderful success in the face of a worldwide pandemic”. Pound estimated that about 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries are likely to participate in the summer games. Canada sent 314 athletes to the 2016 Olympics in Rio along with 204 coaches and support staff.

“You talk on average [per nation]”50 vaccinations, which would be a rounding error in almost every country in the world,” Pound told The Canadian Press. So I guess the authorities and the people of each country would say, “Yes, if we can find a way to deduct these games, it would be a nice triumph over what has been a [long] slit ‘. “

“It’s obvious that health workers come first and the really vulnerable would be close to others,” says Pound. “Then you start testing how to use the remaining doses … For the very, very small numbers involved and the very symbolic importance of a successful game in this context, I would guess – and it’s just a guess – that they most countries would be much for it. “

But some Canadian athletes themselves have questioned the message that early vaccination would send.

“I want to represent Canada in Tokyo,” tweeted Olympic wrestling medalist Erica Wiebe last month. “I want to continue to inspire the next generation of young boys and girls. But I need my community to be safe first and that means a measured risk-based vaccination plan.”

Canadian Olympic racewalker Evan Dunfee worried that priority athletes “would sour the public and just turn society against us,” he told Reuters. “I think we would come home from these games and really be limited in our ability to use the power of sports to lift people, inspire and be role models.”

NEW – WHO says today that Olympic athletes should not be given priority for the vaccine # COVID19.

“A wonderful symbol of our common humanity. However, we have to face reality … There are not enough vaccines right now to even serve those who are most vulnerable. Says @DrMikeRyan.Pic.twitter.com/QNPoJaNqBN

– Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) January 25, 2021

But some athletes have wondered how it can be otherwise.

“We must not forget that 10,000 athletes at the Games will be in a limited space, will talk, eat together in the dining room,” French hammer thrower Quentin Bigot told AFP. “I do not see how an event like the Olympics can be held normally if the athletes are not vaccinated,” he said.

The French Olympic Committee has reportedly tempered its line of vaccinating athletes on their way to Tokyo at the urging of the athletes themselves.

Committee leader Denis Masseglia initially expressed support for allowing French Olympic competitors to jump in the queue, noting that athletes had already been granted special exemptions to train and compete. But French fencer Astrid Guyart, a member of the country’s Olympic Sports Committee, indicated that the group discussed its concerns with Masseglia and saw a change of heart.

“For me it is an ethical problem. As an athlete, I do not have a feeling that I am a person who is vulnerable and so I do not have the impression that we should prioritize, because that is the question that is asked, Guyart told AFP.

“It is out of the question that athletes should be given priority over other sections of the population, but even with the Games, we can assume that it is possible to get them vaccinated without punishing other people,” Masseglia said last week.

Still, he stressed that conditions at the Olympics would be “extremely difficult” for athletes participating without the vaccine, citing long quarantines and frequent virus screening.

Heart problems

With an average age of about 27 and unusual fitness levels by definition, the Olympians would normally be ranked as low risk and equivalent scheduled quite late on the world inoculation calendars. But the Belgian Olympic Committee’s chief physician has flagged a medical reason to give Olympic athletes a leg up on vaccinations.

Dr. Johan Bellemans, himself a former Olympic sailor for Belgium, has admitted that “we do not want our athletes to have a competitive disadvantage” while other countries give their literal shot in the arm. But he told the Belgian sports network Sporza that the medical argument for protecting athletes is more important. “We have many athletes infected in the second wave. Our infection rate is now 22 percent among the Olympians, significantly higher than in the normal population,” he said, noting the risks of athletes’ heavy travel schedules.

“The second medical argument is that publications from a few months ago show that an abnormality in the heart muscle could be observed in 60 percent of the young and active population, three to six months after the infection,” he said. “We have athletes who have been very ill with heart consequences. It will also happen to ordinary people, but when you train intensively with that type of myocarditis it becomes very dangerous. So we want to protect our athletes,” Bellemans told Sporza.

Team Belgium has requested 400 to 500 vaccinations for athletes and support staff and calls for the Olympians to be considered among the “important professions” based on vaccination by healthcare professionals and high-risk groups.

Australian Olympic gold medalist Cate Campbell, who sits on the Sports Committee of the Australian Olympic Committee, has said she supports those on their way to Tokyo to “get some kind of priority” access and be vaccinated in the country’s second or third wave, if explained. as a prerequisite for competing.

“It’s tough. I think athletes have sacrificed a lot to represent Australia … I think we can appreciate how much sport gives to Australia. It’s part of our culture and our identity,” the swimmer told the Sydney Morning Herald .

“Frontline healthcare professionals obviously have to stand in front of the queue because they’re exposed to this all the time. So I’m not saying we’re in front of someone like that or the high risk or the elderly,” Campbell said. “But if we need the vaccine to do our job, I hope it would be made available before the games. Working from home is not an option.”