The Tokyo Games: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?
The Tokyo Games: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?
Should Olympic and Paralympic athletes be prioritised for the COVID-19 vaccination? We explore this ethical dilemma.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in early 2020, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed to July 2021. The organisers assumed that the pandemic would be reined in within a year. And as vaccination trials began to show positive results in late 2020, many thought we might enter 2021 with COVID-19 behind us – or at least on the way there.
However, while vaccination drives have started across many countries, the vaccination rate has been lower than expected in most. Some countries also face a shortage of vaccines, leading to delays in their vaccination schedules.
While healthcare workers and other essential workers were prioritised for the vaccine, along with the elderly and those more susceptible to the disease, many countries have started to vaccinate Olympic athletes on a priority basis.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee has said that it will not mandate vaccinations for all athletes. From a health and safety perspective this can be criticised, but from the point of view of fairness it makes sense – it would disadvantage athletes from poorer nations that do not have access to vaccines yet. Further, this decision allows countries to make their own decisions regarding vaccination schedules and prioritising groups as they see fit.
Perceptions of athletes
The New York Times quoted a professor of medical ethics who stated that athletes are essential workers and should entertain us during these tough times. However, the question then arises, are athletes there for our entertainment?
The modern Olympics began as a celebration of amateur athletes and the values associated with the Olympic movement. The Games are a platform for athletes to showcase their excellence in sport. Is their job, then, to excel in sports or entertain the masses?
The rise of commercial interests, corporate sponsorships and broadcasting revenues, however, have changed the nature of the Olympic Games over the past few decades. While they are still a celebration of athleticism, the consumption of them has become more commercial in nature.
Many countries that have pushed for athletes to be prioritised for the vaccination have argued that they represent their countries on a global stage. The soft power that countries exert through various sporting events, especially the Olympics, cannot be denied – but again, this defeats the purpose of the modern Olympics, as it becomes a venue for nationalism rather than athleticism and the ideals of unity and solidarity.
So, while the pandemic is still raging and many countries are entering their second or third waves of infection, one may ask: are the Games essential?
What is essential?
It isn’t just an ethical question of ‘jumping the vaccination queue’ which is at play, and it isn’t just the Olympic and Paralympic Games that need to be questioned.
In the United Kingdom for example, while the whole country is under a stringent lockdown and people are struggling to make ends meet, the country has been hosting sporting events such as the All-England Open Badminton Championships and the English Premier League – why are these deemed essential at this point of time?
Similarly, at the end of 2020, many Australian citizens living in other countries were barred from coming back to their country, for the government feared a rise in COVID-19 cases being brought in from outside. Yet, at the same time, the Indian cricket team was allowed to enter the country for a series of test matches, and the Australian Open was being held with players participating from around the world.
Yes, it is easier to manage the entry of a couple hundred athletes and their support staff as opposed to thousands of expats, but a country also holds more responsibility towards its citizens than visiting athletes.
Further, the ethical concerns also extend to Japan hosting the Games in a country with an aging (and, hence, highly susceptible) population. It may not be a responsible decision to continue with the Games, especially if athletes will not be vaccinated – indeed, the Games may end up becoming a super-spreader event, rather than a celebration.
The position of the IOC
International organisations like the WHO have been pushing for vaccine equity, to ensure that all countries start vaccinating by 7 April (World Health Day) and the UN also linked their International Day of Sport for Peace and Development initiatives to vaccine equity.
The IOC has supported this position on vaccine equity, and an IOC representative shared the organisation's view on vaccinations, stating:
"From the outset, the IOC has made it clear that, while it supports the vaccination of athletes and National Olympic Committee (NOCs), it will not be mandatory for them be vaccinated in order to participate in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
"The IOC has also underlined that any vaccination programme must be conducted in full respect of national vaccination priorities and it supports the priority of vaccinating vulnerable groups, nurses, medical doctors and everyone who is keeping our societies safe.
"That is why, in February this year, the IOC signed up to the ‘Vaccine Equity Declaration’ of the World Health Organization, as global solidarity is being challenged at a time when we need it most. The declaration calls on world leaders to increase contributions to the COVAX facility and to share doses with COVAX in parallel with national vaccine roll out. The IOC has also invited NOCs and others to join the campaign and sign up to the declaration.
"Incidentally, a significant number of Olympic teams have already been vaccinated, and others have received commitments from their governments, in line with their respective national vaccination delivery strategies. We certainly welcome this. Vaccines are one of many tools available in the COVID19 countermeasures toolbox to ensure safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020."
This is a complex issue with many moral and ethical dilemmas but no easy solutions. Since the Games seem to be going ahead this year, as rescheduled, all measures to make them safe should be taken while ensuring vaccine equity and that no-one is left behind.
What do you think? Should athletes be prioritised, or does this undermine efforts for equity and solidarity? Send your thoughts in an article to email@example.com.
This article has been edited to include the IOC's official statement on vaccinations and the upcoming Olympic Games.