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Olympians Enter a Risky New Event: Vaccine Line Jumping

Some nations are prioritizing Olympians for vaccinations. Others say athletes will wait their turn. The choices could determine if the Tokyo Games are a sporting spectacle, or a super-spreader event.

In the ongoing calculus of how to distribute limited supplies of the coronavirus vaccine, the broad global consensus often starts with a few groups: doctors and nurses, the ill and the aging, frontline workers and teachers.

At no point, typically, would elite athletes — a nation’s finest synchronized swimmers and high divers, its fastest sprinters and racewalkers, its top gymnasts and badminton players — factor into the early discussion.

And yet, that is precisely the debate happening around the world in the final months before this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. It is not just a question of bioethics: The way individual governments proceed on vaccinations over the next few months could determine whether the Olympics unfold as a cathartic mass celebration of international sports, or a monthlong global super-spreader event.

In any other year, professional athletes — young, healthy and obviously very fit — would be ushered to the back of the line. This year, though, with the Olympic Games to open in Japan, where rising case counts early this year forced many of the country’s largest cities into a state of emergency last month, the question has become rather more vexing.

A growing number of countries, a group as diverse as India, Hungary and Israel, have announced that they will push their Olympians to the front of their vaccination lines. Mexico’s president this month placed his country’s athletes in a priority group alongside medical workers and teachers. Lithuania has moved even faster; it began administering vaccine shots to its Olympians weeks ago.

For many countries, the early vaccinations are merely an effort to avoid both untimely cases and interruptions in precious training time. Neither Japanese organizers nor the International Olympic Committee will require proof of vaccination or quarantine periods for anyone attending or competing in the Games, though there will be regular testing for athletes, coaches, journalists and officials while they are in Japan.

Mexico, which has struggled to control the virus, put its elite athletes in a priority group alongside health care workers.
Henry Romero/Reuters

Other national Olympic committees, out of a sense of moral duty or just the fear of public backlash, have said publicly that they will not ask for preferential treatment in vaccinations, no matter how much they may privately want their athletes to get them.

“I certainly don’t think there is any reason why athletes should be given special treatment,” said Evan Dunfee, an elite racewalker from Canada, a country where Olympians, so far, do not have vaccine priority.

Yet even ethics experts are split on the propriety — and the global health consequences — of Olympic line jumping.

“Athletes are essential workers,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, echoing a view expressed in recent weeks by the governments of Denmark, Serbia and the Philippines, who have all said they will usher prospective Olympians toward the front of the vaccination line.

Caplan said that while the focus of this pandemic had rightly been on the physical consequences of the deadly virus, not enough attention was being paid to the psychosocial side effects of widespread lockdowns. He said sports, in that regard, provided a healthy distraction.

“Maybe we should do what we need to do to make it possible for them to entertain us, to help us bear up under tough isolation circumstances,” he said.

Dick Pound, a powerful International Olympic Committee member from Canada, suggested last month that taking “300 or 400 vaccines out of several million” for athletes in Canada should not warrant any public outcry.

But many politicians, sports leaders, athletes and everyday citizens — millions of them just as eager to get vaccinated as quickly as possible — would disagree. And so the debate, in some ways, has pitted those appealing to rigid ideas of bioethical morality against others calling for exceptions made in the spirit of common sense in extraordinary times. The Olympics will, after all, bring together representatives of more than 200 countries, and then send them home to every corner of the globe after several weeks of competition.

In an interview, Dunfee criticized Pound for suggesting Canadian athletes should get an earlier place in line; on the contrary, he said, athletes had a duty to be role models in society.

That has roughly been the official position so far in countries like the United States, Britain and Italy, to name a few.

“Athletes in the U.S. agree that they should wait their proper place in line,” said Bree Schaaf, a former Olympian who is now the chair of Team USA Athletes’ Advisory Council.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

But declining to skip the line has not precluded efforts from officials to expedite vaccinations for their athletes within the rules.

When Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, met with government officials this month, she stated they would follow national public health guidelines, but still laid out a hopeful best-case scenario in which they could be vaccinated before domestic trial events in mid-June.

Similarly, Michael Schirp, a spokesman for the German team, noted there was a delicate way that sports organizations were communicating with the authorities, articulating at once a desire to follow the same rules as everyone else and the sense of urgency they feel with the Games only months away.

“We’re saying while we don’t want to jump the queue, we would be thankful for our athletes to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Schirp said. “So you try to give a signal, but don’t want to come across greedy.”

A survey of German Olympic athletes this year illuminated the prickly dynamics of that stance: 73 percent of respondents said they agreed with the current vaccine protocols that did not give them special treatment. But when asked if they should receive priority if vaccination was required to compete in the Games, 70 percent of athletes said yes. (The I.O.C. has so far indicated that vaccination will not be a prerequisite for anyone to compete at the Tokyo Games.)

Contrast that with Mexico, where coronavirus cases are spiking and access to vaccines remains low. This month, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, nevertheless lumped Olympic athletes into a priority group with medical workers and teachers, ensuring they would receive both doses of the vaccine in time for the Games. His declaration did not seem to cause much of a stir.

Olympians in Lithuania hardly had the time for hand-wringing, either. The ministry of sports there placed all prospective Olympic athletes, coaches and medical staff on the national priority list and began distributing shots of the vaccine to them on Feb. 11.

Observing this, many athletes and officials have noted that vaccine policies could have competitive implications. In a year in which all potential Olympians have had their training routines upturned, the ability to prepare for the Games largely unencumbered by fear of coronavirus infection could be a boon for individual competitors.

Last month, after the Belgian Olympic committee requested 500 vaccines from the government, the team doctor Johan Bellemans told Sporza, a national TV network, that Olympic athletes were at higher risk for infection because of their travel schedules, and said that they had been testing positive at a higher rate than the country’s general population. And, he said, “Obviously, we don’t want our athletes to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

All of this has presented a quandary for the International Olympic Committee and organizers of the Tokyo Games. When the athletes arrive in Japan in July, they will be entering a country that is nowhere close to herd immunity. Japan started vaccinating health care workers only in mid-February, and it does not plan to start inoculating older residents until mid-April. Taro Kono, the cabinet minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, recently said that the Games were “not on my schedule at all.”

Pool photo by Takashi Aoyama

Having thousands of unvaccinated people from hundreds of countries congregate is hardly ideal. Having athletes around the world being perceived as skipping the line to get vaccinated, however, would not be a good look for a Games already mired in delays, cost overruns and public dissatisfaction.

The response of Olympic officials and local organizers has been to delegate the responsibility to governments and national Olympic committees, encouraging them to find ways to get their athletes and coaches vaccinated, declaring publicly that national protocols should be followed, and hoping for the best.

Giovanni Malagò, the president of the Italian Olympic committee, told the newspaper La Republicca that he knew his counterparts in other countries were requesting vaccines for their athletes.

“We will never ask for this and we don’t want it either,” he said.

He may not have to: Many Italian Olympians — the country expects to send about 300 to Japan — could get vaccinated soon anyway. A spokesman for the Italian Olympic committee said that around 60 percent of their prospective Olympians belonged to sports clubs affiliated with the country’s military, which automatically puts them on the priority list.

“I know there’s a lot of athletes who, behind closed doors, feel it’s warranted that they get priority,” Dunfee, of Canada, said. “But public opinion is so vehemently against this stuff that you’re not going to win anyone over or gain any Brownie points by admitting to that point of view.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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