Olympics' vaccine dilemma

Organisers know athletes need inoculation but cannot get priority as supplies are tight

TOKYO • As Olympic organisers deny reports that the Tokyo Games will be postponed again, they, and other sports bodies, are wrestling with the issue of vaccinating participants for Covid-19 at international events.

On Monday, Denis Masseglia, the president of the French National Olympic Committee, said there was no choice but to vaccinate and that "holding the Games is at stake".

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has officially been more cautious ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games, scheduled for July 23 to Aug 8.

It encourages the vaccination of athletes but says it cannot impose inoculation.

IOC president Thomas Bach has said there would be "neither a vaccine obligation nor a priority to athletes" for the Summer Games and according to Masseglia, he cannot do so because of "legal reasons".

However, athletes who choose not to get vaccinated are expected to face plenty of hurdles.

"For those who do not wish to be vaccinated, it is important to know that the precautions for participation will be extremely tough," said Masseglia in a video press conference, warning of "quarantine of a fortnight" and "tests in the mornings and evenings".

While vaccination programmes are kicking into gear around the globe, they are still focusing on those facing the highest risk, so the question of whether elite athletes should be a priority is, for now, awkward.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said its top priority is vaccinating health workers worldwide against Covid-19 and media reports say the demand far outstrips supply.

"This is not an issue about the Olympics, it is about an issue of how we use a scarce resource to try and combat what has obviously been one of the most devastating health crises of our time," said WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward.

In Japan, which reportedly plans to start mass vaccinations in May, a quarter of the population is over 65 and 12.5 per cent are over 75.

The country is trying to balance safety against compulsory vaccination but is pressing ahead with the recruitment of medical personnel for the Games.

Despite the heavy strain on the healthcare system caused by a third wave of infections, Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto said the government was still committed to a plan to employ thousands of medical staff.

"We are trying to secure necessary medical staff of around 10,000, on the premise of asking doctors and nurses that each of them work about five days during the Games period," she said yesterday.

Medical associations have, however, raised the alarm about dwindling capacity, while opposition politicians grilled the government over the plans in parliament.

Mrs Hashimoto also admitted the authorities had yet to work out exact medical provisions needed nor have they firmed up plans to "deal with Covid-19 infections" if they crop up during the Games.

A decision on whether there will be fans present at the event will be made "in the spring" but long-serving IOC member Dick Pound last week hinted that the presence of crowds was "not a must-have".

The Japanese government has placed most of the country under a second state of emergency.

Dr Toshio Nakagawa, Japan Medical Association's president, has said that under current conditions, it would be "impossible" to admit to hospital any foreign visitor who tests positive during the Games.

With less than six months before the event starts, sports bodies are hopeful that the vaccine shortage situation will have eased enough in between that time so their athletes can be in line for shots.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2021, with the headline 'Olympics' vaccine dilemma'. Subscribe