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Olympians Enter a Risky New Event: Vaccine Line Jumping

A survey of German Olympic athletes this year illuminated the prickly dynamics of that stance: 73 percent of respondents said they agreed with the current vaccine protocols that did not give them special treatment. But when asked if they should receive priority if vaccination was required to compete in the Games, 70 percent of athletes said yes. (The I.O.C. has so far indicated that vaccination will not be a prerequisite for anyone to compete at the Tokyo Games.)

Contrast that with Mexico, where coronavirus cases are spiking and access to vaccines remains low. This month, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, nevertheless lumped Olympic athletes into a priority group with medical workers and teachers, ensuring they would receive both doses of the vaccine in time for the Games. His declaration did not seem to cause much of a stir.

Olympians in Lithuania hardly had the time for hand-wringing, either. The ministry of sports there placed all prospective Olympic athletes, coaches and medical staff on the national priority list and began distributing shots of the vaccine to them on Feb. 11.

Observing this, many athletes and officials have noted that vaccine policies could have competitive implications. In a year in which all potential Olympians have had their training routines upturned, the ability to prepare for the Games largely unencumbered by fear of coronavirus infection could be a boon for individual competitors.

Last month, after the Belgian Olympic committee requested 500 vaccines from the government, the team doctor Johan Bellemans told Sporza, a national TV network, that Olympic athletes were at higher risk for infection because of their travel schedules, and said that they had been testing positive at a higher rate than the country’s general population. And, he said, “Obviously, we don’t want our athletes to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

All of this has presented a quandary for the International Olympic Committee and organizers of the Tokyo Games. When the athletes arrive in Japan in July, they will be entering a country that is nowhere close to herd immunity. Japan started vaccinating health care workers only in mid-February, and it does not plan to start inoculating older residents until mid-April. Taro Kono, the cabinet minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, recently said that the Games were “not on my schedule at all.”



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