The Sports Ministry and India’s athletes for the Olympic Games are pushing for early access to the Covid vaccine so that they can start training for the mega event in Tokyo that has been postponed to the summer of 2021. But they might have to wait as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is tracking the composition of the vaccine to avoid athletes failing a dope test, although it insists it’s ‘extremely unlikely’ the Covid-19 shots will contravene anti-doping rules.
“Athletes can be rest assured that in the highly unlikely event that a vaccine causes a possible anti-doping rule violation under the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA’s oversight of any subsequent results management will ensure that vaccines and the principles of anti-doping do not come into conflict,” the agency said in a statement.
WADA said they have a memorandum of understanding with various pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer as well as that industry’s representative body, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.”
“WADA is in communication with them on this matter in order to ascertain the exact composition of the various vaccines currently being made available. WADA will continue to communicate with athletes and other stakeholders as relevant information becomes available,” it said.
WADA prohibits athletes from consuming hundreds of substances that could enhance their performance, in and out of competition. The punishment is stringent — a first-time offender can be banned for up to four years.
However, WADA added there is ‘no reason to believe such vaccines would contravene anti-doping rules.’
“The health of athletes is the primary concern of WADA during this pandemic and they can rest assured that in the highly unlikely event that a vaccine may cause a possible anti-doping rule violation under the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA’s oversight of any subsequent results management will ensure that vaccines and the principles of anti-doping do not come into conflict,” the statement said.
Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra said they will wait for advice from various anti-doping bodies. “We appreciate that the government is thinking about the athletes but we have to make sure that the vaccines do not have any ingredients that could lead to a failed dope test. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have in talks with various stakeholders regarding this issue. We will wait for their advice,” Batra said.
Last month, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had said that athletes in contention for the Olympics, along with support staff, would be placed on the priority list for the vaccine. “Whether it is the Tokyo Olympics or any big event happening, the preference will be given to Olympic-bound athletes as well as the (support) staff because it is time-bound. Our athletes will be given preference and we will work it out with the Health Ministry,” Rijiju was quoted as saying by PTI.
Last week, a high-level government panel recommended three groups to be simultaneously vaccinated on priority depending on availability of vaccine: 1 crore health care workers; 2 crore frontline workers, including police and armed forces; and, about 27 crore above the age of 50 and those less than 50 years with associate comorbidities. There was no mention of sportspersons.
“Healthcare and frontline workers must be given priority. But I feel that a vaccine will be very important for sportspersons, too, especially because the Olympics is just around the corner,” Sushil Kumar, two-time Olympics medal-winning wrestler, told The Indian Express. “Wrestling is a contact sport so there is a risk for us at all times. Already, a lot of my teammates have been infected,” he said.
A national coach, who is involved in preparations for the Olympics, said that a vaccine would help his players train in groups without the fear of getting infected. “It will make a lot of things convenient for us. Most of all, we will be able to travel to different cities and countries for our preparation without fear of contracting the disease,” said the coach, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, however, cautioned that it would be important to understand the side-effects of a vaccine before an athlete gets it. “We will have to plan it well, check what are the side-effects and for how long the athlete will have to stay out of action. We will wait to see what system the government develops. But if a situation arises where the athlete has to get a shot, I am confident we can manage,” he said.
More than 11,000 athletes are expected to take part in the Tokyo Olympics, apart from thousands of coaches, administrators, spectators and media. The Games, which were to take place this year, were postponed because of the pandemic and will now take place from July 23 to August 9, 2021.
The International Olympic Committee, which governs the Games, is clear: athletes will not be “forced” to take the vaccine but should do so as a “demonstration of solidarity”.