Athletes torn over receiving vaccine priority

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Brazilian archer Marcus D’Almeida, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Rio de Janeiro on May 14.

Monday marked exactly two months until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. As uneasiness over coronavirus countermeasures is leading to growing skepticism about holding the Games, athletes overseas press ahead with preparations amid their own battle with the pandemic. This is the first installment in a series examining other countries’ efforts to prepare for the quadrennial event.

At a Brazilian military facility overlooking the venue used for the sailing events during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, five athletes scheduled to compete in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics assembled on May 14.

Marcus D’Almeida, a 23-year-old archer, rolled up his left sleeve and received a shot of the coronavirus vaccine developed and provided for free by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. With a look of relief on his face, D’Almeida said, “I have been refused entry by a number of countries, but now I can prepare well for Tokyo.”

Brazil plans to finish vaccinating about 1,800 athletes, coaches and other officials by June 21. In addition to using six military facilities in Brazil as vaccination sites, military doctors are traveling to athlete training camps and other sites to give the shots.

At the May 14 vaccination, Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, who is a licensed physician, administered the shots to athletes. “The vaccine is a way to ensure [the athletes’] safety,” Queiroga said.

This proceeds while the coronavirus situation in Brazil remains dire; the nation has recorded the world’s third-highest number of COVID-19 cases, and the second-highest death toll.

Some Brazilian athletes have told local media that they felt torn over getting priority access to vaccines, when they are so urgently needed by so many.

“I’ll compete at the Olympics, but my life is worth exactly the same as a person who rides the bus to work every day,” one athlete said. Another said, “I had no intention of getting the vaccine if it had been supplied by the government, rather than being donated.”

According to figures compiled by The Yomiuri Shimbun, about 20 nations and territories had started vaccinating athletes or had finalized plans to do so as of mid-May. Such arrangements also are being made for Japan’s athletes.

But this “athletes first” system during a pandemic is leading to growing criticism and bewilderment, particularly in parts of Europe where the vaccine rollout still lags behind.

From late April, the French government started giving priority to athletes who wished to receive the vaccine. However, the system was not publicly announced, until AFP reported on priority vaccinations being conducted behind a veil of secrecy. The government did so to avoid stoking the ire of the French public.

Before priority vaccinations for athletes started in Italy, some had already finished their shots because they belong to the military, police or other occupational sector that already has priority. Italian Swimming Federation President Paolo Barelli, 66, pointed out that a sense of unfairness has emerged among athletes. “Vaccinated athletes clearly have an advantage, as they can travel to overseas events necessary for Olympic qualifying,” Barelli said.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has confirmed that COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any banned substances, and said they are “highly recommended.” Even so, many athletes have expressed concern about the safety of the vaccines and possible side effects.

Starting in early April, about 450 Iranian athletes have been receiving priority shots of the vaccine produced by China’s state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm. A local newspaper reported that some athletes had a strong aversion to taking this vaccine, with one saying, “I cannot trust the safety of the China-made vaccine.”

As the July 23 opening of the Tokyo Olympics draws near, advance coronavirus testing and vaccinations will be the main pillars of infection prevention measures at Japan’s border. Nations that will send athlete delegations to Japan are scrambling to get ready.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Countries race to vaccinate athletes ahead of Tokyo Games

The global race to vaccinate athletes against the novel coronavirus is in full swing ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, oftentimes even in countries and regions that are still in the grips of the pandemic or have been slow to inoculate their general populaces.

Israel, which burst out of the gates with the world’s fastest vaccine rollout, has also been quick to administer priority shots to its athletes. According to Reuters, half of Israel’s athletes scheduled to participate in the Games had been vaccinated as of the end of January, with the nation on track to vaccinate their entire team by the end of May.

Vaccination drives are also well underfoot in the United States and Canada. Neither nation has set up a priority system specifically for Games athletes, as it is expected that all athletes who want to be vaccinated will be able to get their shots alongside the general population before the Games.

India in February decided to implement the priority vaccination of athletes amid a dire shortage of vaccine and an explosion in the number of infections in the country. The athletes began receiving shots in March.

As Narinder Batra, president of the Indian Olympic Association, told The Yomiuri Shimbun, “Everyone who will go to Tokyo has to be vaccinated first,” emphasizing that the vaccinations will be facilitated with the government’s support.

But India has its own reasons for speeding up priority vaccinations. As the so-called “Indian-variant” spread rapidly across international borders, many Indian athletes were being barred from competitions due to stricter travel restrictions, thereby missing out on precious qualifying events for the Games.

China also began administering priority vaccinations in March, quickly expanding the scope beyond its Olympics delegation to include all athletes expected to participate in international qualifying events.

Sputnik skepticism

However, it still remains to be seen whether priority vaccination efforts will proceed according to plan in some countries.

Since March, Russia has been giving priority vaccinations using its Sputnik V vaccine to those who will compete in Tokyo as authorized neutral athletes.

There is a strong sense of distrust toward the vaccine, which was approved before the results were in on the final clinical trials. Even as some athletes have expressed concern about the potential impact of the vaccine on their physical condition, the Russian Olympic Committee has said that it will continue to urge them to get vaccinated.

Africa lags behind

Some governments on the African continent have been dragging their feet when it comes to athlete vaccinations.

On May 16, Filbert Bayi, secretary general of the Tanzania Olympic Committee, told the The Yomiuri Shimbun that the committee’s repeated requests for permission to vaccinate athletes has been met with silence. Bayi said the committee does not know when their athletes will be able to receive shots.

Tanzania’s former president, John Magufuli, who died in March, played down the coronavirus in favor of policies that prioritized the economy. Even now, the country has yet to decide on a plan for vaccinating its citizens.

Bayi said that Tanzania’s athletes, as national representatives, cannot be vaccinated without approval; doing so would be seen as “going against the agenda of the government.”

A former world record holder in middle-distance track and field himself, Bayi has been caught in a tug-of-war between the Tanzanian government and the athletes at their training camp in Russia.

Vaccination rates are abysmally low in a number of African countries, bottoming out at a mere 0.1% in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As organizers enter the final leg of preparations for the Tokyo Games, the creation of a support system for athletes from these countries will be a pressing issue.

Mixed feelings in Japan

The Japanese Olympic Committee plans to start vaccinating its Games athletes June 1 at the earliest. The JOC is in the process of asking each sport’s governing body about their preferred dates and the number of athletes on their rosters, with the aim of completing the first round of shots by the end of June.

The central government has signaled that it will not require participants in the Games to have been vaccinated. The government has also said that it will not give Japanese athletes priority access to the nation’s extant supply of vaccine set aside for the general public, nor will it actively require that its athletes be vaccinated.

However, the free vaccines that Pfizer Inc. will provide to the International Olympic Committee have been hailed by Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa as a welcome gesture. “It is important to hold the Games with assured safety and security,” she said, while clarifying that the IOC vaccines will be independently distributed as an asterisked case, separate from the priority group ranking that applies to those given to the public by the Japanese government.

Athletes have had conflicted feelings about jumping to the front of the vaccination line.

“I would of course get vaccinated if the alternative would put other people in danger,” said Hitomi Niiya, a track-and-field athlete sponsored by Sekisui Chemical Co. Niiya has been selected to represent Japan in the women’s 10,000-meter race. “It’s a shame that it sounds like athletes are getting special treatment,” she added. “Every life must be saved.”

Rhythmic gymnast Sayuri Sugimoto, who is sponsored by Toyota Motor Corp., said, “I am very grateful, but I rather feel that the general public should be given priority.”

“If [overseas] athletes for the Games come to Japan after being vaccinated, it will contribute to the safety and security of the Japanese people, too,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Regarding the vaccination of Japanese athletes, Hashimoto said: “If it were to hinder the distribution of vaccines to priority groups [such as medical personnel and the elderly], that would put the athletes under even greater pressure. We must prepare an environment to ensure that this will not happen.”