Djokovic’s missed shot
Djokovic’s missed shot
Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia, on grounds of public health interests, highlights vaccine hesitancy in sportspersons and the role of athletes as influencers.
Defending Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic, announced on 4 January on his Instagram page that he was traveling to Melbourne with "exemption permission" to compete in the tennis competition. The decision to exempt him from vaccination against COVID-19 sparked a flurry of media attention.
After being detained in a hotel for refugees, asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants for a few days and following a court battle, Djokovic was then deported earlier this week and barred from entering Australia for three years.
Vaccine hesitancy in sportspersons
Djokovic is not the only sportsperson to be against getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Many footballers have defended their choice to take or not take the vaccine as a personal one that should not interfere with their work. Those that have chosen not to have cited potential side effects, including possible impacts on their cardiac systems, even though these myths have largely been debunked. In a bid to increase vaccination rates among footballers, last year the Premier League considered instituting a rewards mechanism for clubs with higher vaccination rates.
The issue is not just among footballers – Forbes noted that 13 of the 50 highest paid athletes in the world are refusing to disclose whether they have been vaccinated, implying their hesitancy. In a BBC article, sports psychologist Darren Britton notes that athletes’ “bodies are their biggest commodity.” This makes it even more important that they are not compromising their health.
Athletes as role models
However, athletes are role models. Djokovic and a few other athletes have been vocal about their opposition to the COVID-19 vaccinations, and this has likely influenced many others in their decision not to take the vaccine and fuelled conspiracy theories. Djokovic has become a poster child for anti-vaccine groups and individuals. His story has been widely shared on anti-vaccine Facebook groups.
During a time of a global pandemic, when the world is in such upheaval, everyone has a responsibility to come together to fight this, in whatever way they are able to. Athletes should use their platform to ensure that they are not spreading misinformation and are influencing others positively, to take informed decisions.
Campaign for vaccine equity
While the Djokovic case was unravelling in Australia, Olympic and Paralympic athletes have come together to demand that world leaders and decision-makers ensure free and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines globally. While over 60% of the world’s population has received at least one dose, there are stark disparities The Global South already lags far behind the Global North, with the gap now becoming wider due to the need for booster shots arising due to new COVID-19 variants.
Thus, the campaign for vaccine equity, spearheaded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), comes at an important juncture. In a video released by the IOC, over 20 Olympians and Paralympians highlight the way they, as athletes, can bring the world together to fight COVID-19. These athletes include Olympic champions Federica Pellegrini (swimming, Italy) and Seung-min Ryu (table tennis, South Korea), three-time Olympic medallist Pau Gasol (basketball, Spain), two-time Olympic medallist Maja Martyna Włoszczowska (cycling, Poland), and Humphrey Kayange (rugby, Kenya).
- Watch the video here
In the video, the athletes state: “We have been given a way forward with a safe and effective vaccine that can help save precious lives and protect our friends… and our families. So we call on governments, foundations, philanthropists, health organisations and social businesses to join hands in giving free and equal access to the vaccine for everybody across the world to pledge our collective responsibility to protect those who are the most vulnerable, because everyone on this planet has a right to live a healthy life. We are stronger together when we stand in solidarity and care for each other.”
This campaign highlights the important role that athletes play as influencers – they not only can influence individuals’ decisions but can also use their voice to influence policymakers and other powerful actors. Many more athletes should take inspiration from these Olympians and Paralympians and understand their civic responsibility in fighting for positive change during a global pandemic.
The future for Djokovic
With Djokovic out of the Australian Open this year, his dream to break the record for the male champion with most Grand Slam titles to his name has been delayed – currently, he is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with all three of them having 20 Grand Slams to their name. The French government has now ruled that all athletes will have to be vaccinated to compete in sporting events in the country. If Djokovic wants to defend his French Open title in May, he will have to get vaccinated.*
While Djokovic’s detention at Melbourne’s infamous detention hotel, the Park Hotel, has received a lot of attention, less prominent in the media coverage is the plight of other detainees, refugees, and asylum seekers whose whole lives have been put on hold as they await a decision from the Australian government. Though some are in the Melbourne hotel, many others aren’t even allowed onto Australian soil, languishing in camps off island, in Nauru and other neighbouring countries.
Mehdi Ali, a refugee who has spent nine years in detention, said: “There is a disappointment: everyone wants to ask me about Novak, what the hotel is like for him. But they don’t ask about us: we have been locked up in this place for months, for years.” If this saga is able to bring some justice to refugees like Ali, then perhaps there is some saving grace for Djokovic, who is now scrambling to control the damage.
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*Since publication, the French government has clarified that athletes may be exempt from vaccination if they have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last six months.
An earlier version of the article incorrectly identified the reason for Djokovic's deportation as failure to comply with Australia's COVID-19 protocols and his detention was incorrectly noted to have been spent at the Carlton hotel. The details have been rectified.