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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Explained: Should Tokyo Olympic players jump the vaccine queue?

With less than 150 days to go for the Tokyo Olympics, more and more countries are grappling with the question of where to place their athletes in the vaccination queue.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 4, 2021 10:37:33 am
Tokyo Olympics, Olympics Covid vaccination, Covid vaccination, Indian athletes Covid vaccination, Olympics 2021, Olympics Covid vaccination, Indian ExpressA man wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus rides a bicycle pas the Olympic rings at the base of the Olympic Tower in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo: Mark Schiefelbein)

When Martina Veloso, Teo Shun Xie and Teh Xiu Hong land in New Delhi later this month for the shooting World Cup, they will be among the few shooters who would have received Covid-19 vaccines. That is because even as other countries debate the process to secure Covid-19 shots for their Olympics-bound athletes, Singapore put their sportspersons in the priority group and began vaccination last month.

With less than 150 days to go for the Tokyo Olympics, more and more countries are grappling with the question of where to place their athletes in the vaccination queue. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee have recommended that athletes and officials get their jabs before the Games.

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However, it has not been made mandatory, meaning it is left for the countries to decide if they want their athletes to get special treatment and get bumped ahead in the queue, or like other citizens, wait for their turn.

Jumping the queue

Singapore’s Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Edwin Tong, said their athletes were administered vaccine so that they can travel and compete in the events leading up to the Olympics, apart from the Games themselves.

“We must support our athletes as they travel, train, and compete for Singapore on a global stage,” Tong wrote on Twitter. “We will therefore progressively arrange for our athletes and coaches to get their vaccinations ahead of their overseas travel so that they remain safe, and can focus on their competitions.”

Hungary has began vaccinating athletes not just for the Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 23 to August 8, but also the Beijing Winter Games, which will be held six months later. The Hungarian Olympic Committee, according to Reuters, has identified 868 athletes who will receive the Moderna vaccine so they can prepare for their respective events.

The Hungarian athletes were in the queue after the healthcare workers but alongside the elderly, much before the rest of the population would receive their jabs.

Serbia, too, began inoculating its athletes with Chinese and Russian vaccines, Reuters reported, in late January. The Balkan country’s sports ministry and Olympic Committee said the vaccine “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.”

Israel had already vaccinated half of its Tokyo-bound delegation last month, and its Olympic Committee said their entire contingent would receive their doses by the end of May, two months before the opening ceremony.

Belgium has requested 400-500 vaccines for athletes and support staff, asking that Olympians be considered among the ‘essential professions’. But the Belgian Olympic Committee’s chief physician Johan Bellemans has said the country’s athletes would be at a “competitive disadvantage” if they did not get the vaccines and their opponents did. He added that athletes should receive the vaccine to be secured from infection closer to the Olympics, as per Sporza.

Those queuing up

India has said the 100-odd athletes and officials will be vaccinated before they leave for Tokyo. However, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju has left it to the health ministry to decide when they will be administered the doses.

Last month, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) wrote to the health ministry, seeking emergency vaccination for the officials who will be on duty for this month’s shooting World Cup. But the health ministry did not respond to their request.

As the government began the process for elderly population and those with comorbidities, it is not yet clear when the athletes will be eligible to get vaccines. But Sports Secretary Ravi Mital said it will be done before the Olympics and the time-gap between the two doses will be taken into account as well.

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France’s Olympic Committee chief Denis Masseglia earlier spoke in favour of allowing their athletes to jump the queue to get the vaccines. His argument, according to France 24, was that the athletes had “already been granted special dispensations to train and compete”.

But after other members of their Olympic Committee raised concerns, it was decided that French athletes will have to wait. “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,” French Olympic Committee member Astrid Guyart was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse.

Following Guyart’s statement, Masseglia said: “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.”

Australia has not begun the immunisation drive for its athletes as well. While their sportspersons have been ‘encouraged’ to get the shots, some of the top stars have said they should not get preferential treatment.

“At the end of the day, we are a sport and there are a lot of people who deserve to get the vaccine before us,” Stewart McSweyn, who has qualified in 1500, 5000 and 10000m races, was quoted as saying by thenewdaily.com.au. “If we fall in line after the most important people get it then, yeah, I think we should get it… But I don’t think we should jump the queue.”

Italy has decided against prioritizing athletes for vaccines. The head of Italy’s Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, said they will not put the vulnerable population at risk. “We already know there are many countries where national athletes are about to be vaccinated,” 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.”

However, according to The New York Times, Italian athletes could get vaccinated soon anyway. The newspaper quoted an Italian Olympic Committee spokesperson as saying that “around 60 per cent of their prospective Olympians belonged to sports clubs affiliated with the country’s military, which automatically puts them on the priority list.”

The United States, too, will not let its athletes jump the queue although the country’s Olympic officials are in talks with their government to figure out if the vaccines can be administered before their Olympic trials in June. Germany and Great Britain are among the nations that haven’t sanctioned vaccines for their athletes so far.

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