Elite athletes, Covid chaos and vaccine hesitancy — can the show go on?

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 (Evening Standard comp)
(Evening Standard comp)

Novak Djokovic has an obsession with the record books. With 20 Grand Slam singles titles, he is level at the top of the all-time list with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The world No1 has won eight of the last 11 Australian Opens and was the favourite for the title this month in Melbourne.

And yet the indications had been for a long time that the Covid vaccine — or lack of it — would cause Djokovic to miss the tournament altogether. Five-time Grand Slam champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert had already ruled himself out of the Australian Open as he is yet to get vaccinated against Covid.

Australian officials, in a bid to curb the spread of Covid as the country slowly opens up after months under some of the strictest restrictions in the world, stipulated that only players who have been double vaccinated can play in the opening Grand Slam of the year. For Djokovic though, it seems they were willing to make an exception and organisers of the Australian Open granted the nine-time winner of the men’s title in Melbourne a medical exemption.

Yet, off the back of huge backlash, Djokovic’s visa was revoked on arrival in Australia with authorities saying the 34-year-old had “failed to provide appropriate evidence” for entry. He is now awaiting deportation in a quarantine hotel.

Competitor Nadal, who will compete in Melbourne, had little sympathy, saying Djokovic knew the rules around vaccines. “In some way, I feel sorry for him but he knew the conditions months ago,” he said. “I don’t encourage nobody. Everyone has to do what they feel is good for them but there are rules and without the vaccine there can be some troubles. He’s free to take his own position, but then there are consequences.” He added: “Of course what’s happening is not good for Novak, in my opinion. [But] if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open. We have been going through very challenging [time]. A lot of families have been suffering in the last three years. It’s normal that people here in Australia get very frustrated with the case because they have been going through all of very hard times.”

“Freedom of choice is essential,” Djokovic said last month, which for the 34-year-old Serbian includes the choice of “what you want to put in your body”. But in tennis circles, he is far from alone in his reticence. World No4 Stefanos Tsitsipas said he would not get vaccinated until it was mandatory, a stance he later backed down from (he has now had both jabs).

At the end of October, 65 per cent of ATP Tour players had been double vaccinated. That number, in the wake of the Australian Open mandate, has risen past 80 per cent, a similar figure to the WTA Tour, numbers that are likely to rise in the weeks approaching the tournament. British tennis star and US Open winner Emma Raducanu has said that she will do whatever is required of her to take part in the Australian Open - on Monday evening, she announced she had Covid and would miss Mubadala Classic exhibition event in Abu Dhabi this week. Over the summer, former British women’s No1 Jo Konta — who has since retired — had to withdraw from the Olympics after contracting Covid (there’s no suggestion that she has refused vaccination).

To play or not to play: Novak Djokovic (APA/AFP via Getty Images)
To play or not to play: Novak Djokovic (APA/AFP via Getty Images)

Tennis is by no means out on a limb. At the end of September, the Premier League revealed that just 13 of the 20 clubs had 50 per cent or more of their players fully vaccinated. It led to a letter to the respective clubs with unspecified “rewards” for those with a bigger uptake.

And there has been no shortage of recent cases in English football’s top flight. There have now been 42 cases reported in the Premier League - more than the previous high of 40 in January 2020 - and there are fears over games. Last weekend’s game between Tottenham and Brighton was postponed due to a Covid outbreak at Spurs, which is thought to have affected both players and staff, and Manchester United’s game against Brentford, due to take place on Tuesday evening, has been cancelled. Clubs including Chelsea and Arsenal have also had players out this season. Perhaps the worst case was Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow, who lost five kilos and struggled with the after effects long after testing positive. Darlow, who was not vaccinated at the time, has since implored others to get jabbed. “The severity [of the illness] is what hit home for me,” he told The Times in August. “And what it can do to young, fit, healthy athletes that train their body every day.” He has spoken of being sapped of energy in the aftermath of the illness, struggling to put muscle back on.

Wolves have led the way for English football’s top flight in terms of vaccinations, with their entire squad the first to be fully vaccinated, while Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said 99 per cent of his players had been, and in an impassioned speech, likened not taking the vaccine to drink-driving.

But it is clearly a divisive issue. When England manager Gareth Southgate appeared in a video for the NHS encouraging others to have the jab, he was surprised by the level of abuse targeted at him. “I was asked to do a video supporting the vaccination programme, which I thought was responsible, and of all the things I received abuse for over the summer — of which there’s been several — that’s probably the one I’ve received the most abuse over.” He added: “At their age, they are more open to some of these conspiracy theories. Because they are reading social media more, they are perhaps vulnerable to those sorts of views. From what I can tell, there is a bit of confusion around it.” Roma forward Tammy Abraham was the first England player to publicly reveal he had been vaccinated, though most others have evaded the question, stressing that it is a personal choice.

Road to recovery:  Newcastle’s Karl Darlow (Getty Images)
Road to recovery: Newcastle’s Karl Darlow (Getty Images)

The vaccine misinformation has been multi-faceted. One argument, which even made it onto the radio airwaves in the UK, was that problems on the pitch suffered by certain players had been caused by the Covid vaccine. The debate came after Sheffield United’s John Fleck collapsed during a Championship game, was taken to hospital and later released. Speaking on TalkSport, former England midfielder Trevor Sinclair said: “I think everyone wants to know if he [Fleck] has had the Covid vaccine.”

This argument has been robustly dismissed by football global governing body Fifa as well as scientists, among them Professor Keith Neal, from the University of Nottingham, who has 30 years’ experience in controlling infectious diseases, including Covid. “Someone on TalkSport said players had collapsed after vaccines,” he said. “If players had collapsed we would have known about it and it would have been investigated. Some of these people think they’re right but it’s just bonkers.”

There is an argument that key figures set the benchmark for those beneath them, be that Klopp at Liverpool or Djokovic in men’s tennis. But for Professor Neal, the message is simple: “Listen to the scientists. Why would I listen to a tennis player about science? If he told me how to improve my tennis game, I’d listen avidly. But why listen to say someone on Facebook saying that my nose will drop off if I get vaccinated. People don’t question these things enough.”

Another argument is that many men and women across elite sports are reluctant to put anything alien into their bodies. “I’m not some sort of anti-vax, flat-earther,” says NFL quarter-back Aaron Rodgers, who recently tested positive for Covid. “I am somebody who is a critical thinker. I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body, not to have to acquiesce to some sort of woke culture or crazed individuals who say you have to do something.” Unlike in some sports, vaccination figures in the NFL are high — the organisation says 94 per cent of players have had both jabs.

The situation wildly varies from sport to sport. In the NBA, there is no mandated vaccine for athletes but public health stipulations vary from state to state. Back in October the Australian Football League, much like the Australian Open, stipulated a “no jab, no play” policy.

Positive result: Emma Raducanu has Covid (AP)
Positive result: Emma Raducanu has Covid (AP)

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not quite insisted the same but, for those vaccinated, there is no need to quarantine on arrival. Those not vaccinated would have a 21-day quarantine period on Chinese soil, making it a virtual impossibility for any athlete to be in peak condition for the Games. The British Olympic Association says that rule means it expects 100 per cent of its athletes and staff to be vaccinated. For the Tokyo Olympics in the summer, that number was already high — 98 per cent of 375 Team GB athletes, despite no rule insisting upon it as an entry or competition requirement.

German newspaper Bild recently reported that Bayern Munich, who play in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top flight football league, will dock the pay of unvaccinated players for the games missed because of testing positive for Covid. Indeed, money clearly talks. Football has been severely impacted by Covid — European governing body Uefa estimated that it had cost its clubs £7.5 billion, half of that due to the lack of ticket sales during the various lockdown periods. Some countries are beginning to make vaccinations mandatory — although this is not the case in the UK, so sportsmen and women still have that freedom of choice.

But the pressure on not just sports stars but the wider public to get vaccinated is increasing. In the Premier League’s letter to its member clubs, it stated: “It is increasingly clear that full vaccination will be the key criteria for government and health authorities in terms of international travel and potential Covid certification at large-scale events.” What that means for football — and sports beyond — is yet to be seen.

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