Covid vaccines for the Tokyo Olympics have become a political issue

The International Olympic Committee has a complicated view on whether athletes should be vaccinated for the Tokyo Games this summer.

The IOC will not require Covid-19 vaccines for competition and does not want athletes to cross the line. But he also ordered national Olympic committees to try to secure shots for their athletes.

The mixed signals show how touchy the vaccine has become before Tokyo. Even discussing vaccines for athletes can cause hostility as a slow rollout of vaccines unfolds around the world among countries eager to reverse the trend of deaths, caseloads and economic downturn. Still, sports officials from the dominant Olympic nations say they are pursuing the IOC’s request anyway.

Meanwhile, a long-time IOC member has stated in strong terms the importance of vaccines for countries taking part in the Tokyo Games, just five months away.

“Unless you’re crazy, you should get vaccinated before you come,” Dick Pound said in a recent interview with the Journal.

Responses from 20 Olympic nations polled by The Wall Street Journal indicate that many nations are willing to risk public backlash by at least seeking to advocate for the vaccination of athletes.

US Olympic officials said they raised the issue with the White House, although they also say they are not pushing for the US team delegation in Tokyo to be vaccinated before more vulnerable people.

Officials in Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, have “asked our government to consider that our Olympic team members should be vaccinated in time”, a spokesperson said.

New Zealand’s minister for Covid-19 response has said the country will consider vaccinating athletes ahead of the Tokyo Games if their turn in rolling out the national vaccine does not come sooner. The Russian Olympic Committee says it is ready, if necessary, to provide full assistance to Russian Olympic candidates for vaccines.

Australian Olympic leaders have said they expect most athletes to be vaccinated against the virus by the summer. The Tokyo Games are due to start on July 23. The South Korean Olympic committee said it was gathering information on who to vaccinate and when. The Croatian committee says it has a plan with its government to get athletes vaccinated, but due to “the dynamics of vaccine delivery” it doesn’t know for sure it will happen in time for the Olympics. summer.

And in Hungary, government-organized vaccination has started for 868 coaches and athletes, including more than 150 athletes who are preparing not for the Tokyo Games, but for the Beijing Winter Olympics which are to follow in February 2022.

One of the hottest political issues around the world is the distribution of a vaccine for which demand is high, supply is scarce and delivery is complex. Many countries have sought to prioritize people at high risk of complications if they contract the virus, as well as healthcare providers and other essential workers. There is fierce debate over the relative merits of each of these groups.

The idea of ​​rushing to vaccinate athletes, especially as many schools and businesses remain closed, has drawn bitter reactions even as some public health advocates say sports stars could serve as role models for vaccination.

According to UBS, at the current rate of vaccination, only about 10% of the world’s population will be inoculated by the end of this year and 21% by the end of 2022. Infectious disease experts estimate that the percentage of the population requiring a vaccine to achieve herd immunity of 70% or greater.

Most Covid vaccines require two doses several weeks apart, and it takes a few weeks after the second dose for the full benefits to show, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. This means that to obtain maximum protection through vaccination, athletes should have received their first vaccine two months before leaving for Tokyo, around the third week of May.

Team USA during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Games.


ivan alvarado/Reuters

Recently released Olympic ‘playbooks’ outlining virus mitigation measures for the Games said vaccination would not be a requirement to participate in the Tokyo Games and that the IOC supports the priority vaccination of vulnerable groups and frontline medical personnel.

But a manual has also called on national Olympic committees to encourage and help their delegations get vaccinated in their home countries.. The handbook says the IOC has sent a letter to each National Committee to “actively engage with their respective governments on this issue and report back to the IOC in early February 2021”.

The IOC said in a statement to the Journal that “this is to contribute to the safe environment of the Games, but also out of respect for the Japanese people, who must be confident that everything is being done to protect not only the participants, but also the Japanese people themselves, he also said he learned that “a number of national governments have already taken positive decisions in this regard.”

One question is what Olympic leaders will do with delegations from countries whose governments end up unable or unwilling to help secure vaccines.

The IOC did not respond to questions about whether it would take action to obtain vaccines for these delegations.

Of the dominant Olympic nations that responded to the Journal’s question, only Germany and the Netherlands said they would not discuss athlete doses with their governments until priority groups have been vaccinated. . Italy said the country was in the process of forming a new government.

For some others where the conversation started, it remains a tricky business. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said its chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, met with the White House Office of Public Engagement earlier in February and discussed “the need for Covid-19 vaccines for athletes in the U.S. team at the appropriate time, and after distribution to priority populations, best-case scenario being before National Trials and the Tokyo Games this summer.

—Georgi Kantchev contributed to this article.

Write to Rachel Bachman at [email protected] and Louise Radnofsky at [email protected]

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