Faster, higher, stronger? Nations weigh letting athletes jump the vaccine queue for Tokyo Games

·10-min read

With organisers vowing that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will go ahead this summer despite the ongoing global pandemic that delayed the event by a year, some nations – like Hungary, Serbia and Israel – are moving ahead with inoculating their would-be Olympians to ensure they are free to train, qualify, travel and compete. But some – including elite athletes – question whether fast-tracking young, healthy sportspeople for vaccinations should be a priority and whether it fits with Olympic values.

With vaccine delays creating hurdles in the global race for Covid-19 immunity, wealthy countries are competing to secure more shots, less affluent ones are running behind and the finish line remains a speck in the distance.

But amid the fray, a growing handful of nations are controversially prioritising one cohort of young vaccination candidates that are, quite naturally, paragons of fitness: Olympic athletes, with the Tokyo Games just six months away.

On Friday, Hungary began vaccinating athletes who stand to qualify for the next two Olympic Games: Tokyo this summer – delayed a year by the pandemic and now slated 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 in the run-up to the Games, with the order of priority among athletes decided by their respective training camps and qualification tournaments.

Vaccinations for Olympic athletes are couched as a safety matter, but in a world of motley inoculation strategies they may also come to represent a sporting advantage for nations that can spare doses for their Olympic squads.

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

That decision put would-be Olympians in Hungary's immunisation queue after healthcare professionals but alongside the elderly – and ahead of the general population.

Serbia also began administering doses to its athletes on Friday, with the Balkan country's Sports Ministry and Olympic Committee saying the jabs "should not be compulsory but it is desirable so as to ensure the safety and health of athletes as well as of the general population".

'We don't want it'

The head of Italy's Olympic Committee, for his part, has come down against prioritising athletes for Covid-19 immunity.

"We already know there are many countries where national athletes are about to be vaccinated," Giovanni Malago told La Repubblica newspaper. "We will never ask for this and we don't want it, either. An elderly person has a sacred right to be vaccinated before a 20-year-old athlete is."

Greece's Olympic Committee wants its athletes inoculated, although after healthcare workers and the elderly. A spokesman told Reuters that the committee "will continue to put pressure on the Greek government in order to have all the athletes vaccinated".

In some countries the queue is comparatively short, putting athletes at a certain advantage even without a boost from their Olympic committees – but other nations have yet to administer a single dose of vaccine.

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

Meanwhile in Israel, which leads the world in Covid-19 vaccinations administered per capita, half of the delegation headed to Tokyo has already been vaccinated. Israel's 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-setting Covid-19 vaccination drive

Seoul is waiting for Tokyo's formal decision to go ahead with the Games to make a decision for the 157 athletes so far set to compete for South Korea. "Of course the athletes should be given the vaccine if they are going to participate," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told Reuters.

The International Olympic Committee, for its part, has said it isn't pushing for special favours for athletes.

"We always made it clear we are not in favour of athletes jumping the queue," IOC chief Thomas Bach said last week during a virtual news conference. He said "the high-risk groups, the healthcare workers and the people who keep our society alive" must be "the first priority and this is a principle we have established".

"The reality is that it's up to each government to decide about vaccination and access to vaccination," Bach said. "That's why we've asked [National Olympic Committees] to get in touch with their respective government."

The world needs a win

While athletes training for the Games say they are struggling to put the uncertainty surrounding the event out of mind, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week reaffirmed his commitment to holding the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. "I am determined to achieve the games as a 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.

Suga's compatriots have appeared decidedly less keen in recent surveys, in large part over concerns about the attendant influx of foreign athletes, Reuters has reported. A poll by Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper last week showed 86 percent of respondents wanted the Games postponed or cancelled. Games organisers have yet to settle the question of whether or not to allow spectators into venues. Tokyo and its neighbouring prefectures are currently under a state of emergency to stem the spread of Covid-19, and Japan has yet to announce the start of its own vaccination campaign.

IOC member Richard Pound, the longest-serving member of the Lausanne-based committee, stirred controversy in his native Canada last month when he suggested athletes should be given priority to allow the Games to go ahead and make for "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 take part in the summer Games. Canada, for one, sent 314 athletes to the 2016 Olympics in Rio along with 204 coaches and support staff.

"You're talking about, 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 my guess is the authorities and the population in each country would say, like, 'Yeah, if we can find some way to pull off these Games it would be a nice triumph in the face of what's been a [long] slog'."

"Clearly health workers come first and the really vulnerable would be a close second," Pound said. "Then, you start triaging how you would use remaining dosages... For the very, very small numbers involved and the very symbolic meaning of a successful Games in this context, my guess – and it's only a guess – would be that most countries would be very much in favour of it."

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

"I want to represent Canada in Tokyo," Olympic wrestling gold-medallist Erica Wiebe tweeted 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 athletes taking priority "would sour public opinion and just turn the community against us", he told Reuters. "I think we'd come home from those Games and really be limited in our ability to use the power of sport to lift people up, to inspire and to be role models."

But some athletes have wondered aloud how it can be otherwise.

"One mustn't forget that, at the Games, 10,000 athletes will find themselves in a limited space, will talk, will eat together in the canteen," French hammer-thrower Quentin Bigot told AFP. "I don't see how an event like the Olympic Games can be held normally if the athletes aren't vaccinated," he said.

Still, France's Olympic committee has reportedly tempered its line on vaccinating athletes headed to Tokyo on the urging of the athletes themselves.

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

"For me, it poses an ethical problem. As an athlete, I don't have the feeling that I am a person who is vulnerable and so I don't have the impression we should take priority, because that is the question being posed," Guyart told AFP.

"It's out of the question that athletes should be given priority over other categories of population, but between now and the Games we can assume that it is possible to have them vaccinated without penalising other people," Masseglia said last week.

Still, he stressed that conditions at the Olympics would be "extremely difficult" for athletes who take part without the vaccine, citing long quarantines and frequent virus screening.

Cardiac concerns

With an average age of about 27 and uncommon fitness levels by definition, Olympians would normally be ranked as low-risk and correspondingly scheduled fairly late on the world's inoculation calendars. But the Belgian Olympic Committee's chief physician has flagged a medical rationale for giving Olympic athletes a leg up on vaccinations.

Dr. Johan Bellemans, himself a former Olympic sailor for Belgium, has conceded that "we don't want our athletes to be at a competitive disadvantage" while other nations are giving theirs a literal shot in the arm. But he told Belgium's Sporza sports network that the medical argument for protecting the athletes is more important. "We have many athletes who got infected in the second wave. Our infection rate is now 22 percent among the Olympians, substantially higher than in the normal population," he said, noting the risks engendered by the athletes' heavy travel schedules.

"The second medical argument is that publications from a few months ago show that an abnormality of 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 cardiac implications. That will also happen in normal people, but when you exercise intensively with that sort of inflammation of the heart muscle, 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, asking that Olympians be considered among the "essential professions" primed for inoculation after healthcare workers and high-risk groups.

Australian Olympic gold-medal swimmer Cate Campbell, who sits on the athletes' commission of Australia's Olympic Committee, has said she supports those headed to Tokyo "getting some sort of priority" access, being vaccinated in the country's second or third wave, if it is declared a prerequisite for competing.

"It's a tough one. I think athletes have sacrificed a lot to represent Australia ... I think we can appreciate how much sport brings to Australia. It's part of our culture and our identity," the swimmer told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Frontline healthcare workers obviously have to be at the front of the queue because they are exposed to this all the time. So I'm not saying we go in front of anyone like that or the high-risk or elderly," Campbell said. "But if we require the vaccine to do our job, I'd hope that would be made available before the Games. Working from home isn't an option."