Olympics: Small minority of US Olympians oppose Covid-19 vaccine mandate, say officials

The Beijing Olympics would have tight Covid-19 measures in place to ensure the safety of all participants during the Feb 4-20 event. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Monday (Oct 18) that its decision to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for those competing at next year's Beijing Olympics has been met with some resistance.

In a bid to create a safe environment and restore some level of consistency in planning, the USOPC announced last month that Team USA athletes hoping to compete in the Beijing Olympics will be required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

"The response is as you would expect: Within our general population, there are some people who are extremely happy that we introduced this policy," Jonathan Finnoff, the USOPC's chief medical officer, said during the virtual Team USA media summit.

"And there are others that are upset and would like to not have any mandate regarding vaccinations."

According to Finnoff, it is only a "very small minority" of Team USA athletes who oppose the mandate and the USOPC is having one-on-one conversations with each one to discuss their feelings and explain why the decision was made.

Last month's announcement by the USOPC came days before the International Olympic Committee said the Beijing Olympics would have tight Covid-19 measures in place to ensure the safety of all participants during the Feb 4-20 event.

Finnoff said the "more stringent" Beijing measures, which he added unlike the USOPC's rules will not grant religious exemption, would supersede the US policy.

Any athlete who is granted a medical exemption will have to go through a 21-day quarantine in Beijing before they can begin training ahead of their event.

"These are challenging times but the vaccine policy that we've put in place and that China has put in place is going to make the Games as safe as possible," said Finnoff.

USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said the Covid-19 mandate is all about the safety and health of the team.

"The presence of this virus makes the challenge greater for all of us in a Games environment but we are committed to doing everything we can to mitigate illness and to mitigate the spread of Covid-19," she said.

Separately, the USOPC refused to be drawn into the row about China's human rights record that has sparked protests in the run-up to next year's Beijing Winter Games.

Hirshland, speaking at the virtual Team USA media summit, drove home a message that Olympic boycotts essentially harm athletes and do very little to impact problems in host countries. "We strongly believe that the governments of the world, including our own, and the respective diplomatic teams and experts should lead the conversation about international relations," said Hirshland. "We are focused on ensuring that athletes are provided a safe, fair and enjoyable environment to compete and we are confident that that's what's ahead."

Activists have urged the IOC to take the Feb 4-20 Olympics out of China given its treatment of Uighur Muslims along with other human rights concerns.

China denies human rights abuses.

Earlier on Monday, human rights activists unfurled a banner reading "No Genocide Games", waved a Tibetan flag and called for a boycott of the Beijing Games during the torch-lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia.

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