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Olympic athletes caught in vaccination debate

By Claire Thomson

Sports Reporter Claire Thomson gives her take on the ongoing discussions on Olympic athletes having their vaccines prioritised.

In March last year, the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the agreement that a second delay was out of the question and either the games go ahead this summer or are cancelled altogether. Now, less than six months away from the beginning of the XXXII Olympiad, the pandemic is still very much present across the globe, with deaths and cases rapidly increasing daily. Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, announced that he was confident that the Olympics would still go ahead with global participation as planned if athletes are vaccinated beforehand. He has since openly argued that he believes that athletes should be given priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine, however, these comments have proven to be very controversial amongst athletes as well as the general public. 

Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, stated during his visit to Tokyo in November 2020 that athletes would be strongly encouraged to get the vaccine, but it is not a requirement to participate in the Olympic Games this summer. So, with the vaccine rollout well underway in many countries around the world, the question of whether athletes should be prioritised is at the forefront of many sporting debates.

The vaccination of athletes prior to the Tokyo Olympics, presuming they do go ahead as planned, is absolutely crucial. The IOC has estimated that around 11,000 athletes, not including staff and coaches, from 206 nations will be travelling to the host city this summer with the intention of competing in the Games. With travel restrictions now in place within countries, in an attempt to reduce the rate of transmission of the virus, there are very few ways to make the Olympic Games safe and accessible for all involved.

The Olympics play a massive role in the economy and the economic expense of complete cancellation would prove detrimental, as it would cost Japan an estimated US$41.5bn based on operating expenses and loss of tourism and hospitality. As a result of the pandemic, the world is already in a financial crisis without taking into account this deficit, therefore the financial impacts on not only Tokyo and Japan, but the rest of the world, as athletes return home from Tokyo, and sporting community could be massive if the Olympic Games were to be cancelled or if athletes travelled and competed without having the vaccine.

For many professional athletes, the Olympics is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent their country, their sport, and prove to themselves that all their hard work, determination, and sacrifices have paid off. Many athletes have already made the decision to still travel to Tokyo and are willing to take the risk to represent their country in an Olympic Games. Steve Solomon, a 400-metre sprinter and co-captain of the Australian athletics team, has admitted that he would prefer to be vaccinated before travelling, however like many others is of the belief that the vaccine must be distributed to the most vulnerable of the population first, which he says is not athletes. 

The fact that the Olympics only occur every four years is also a major factor when deciding athlete vaccinations. Speaking to Sky News, Dick Pound said: “In Canada where we might have 300 or 400 hundred athletes – to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level – I don’t think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that.” He has a very valid point as international representation in sport is a big achievement.

I believe that from the Olympics everyone benefits, granted some more than others. The Olympic Games provide entertainment, boosts the economy, and status of the country, and inspires the younger generations to be active, lead a healthy lifestyle, and most importantly teaches them that anything is possible with self-belief and hard work. When looking at the bigger picture, the number of athletes competing at the Olympic Games is only a fraction of the population and prioritising them behind all the categories mentioned above would hardly cause a dent in the rollout of the vaccination, especially in the UK. So, with the Olympics a mere six months away, I hope that all the athletes involved have the chance to compete in a safe environment and show the world what they are made of.


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