Should our athletes jump the queue for vaccines in order to go to Olympics?

Tipping Point: Proposed Olympic Games in Japan pose an ethical dilemma for many countries

A woman looks at an electric board last Friday showing the number of days until the start of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in Tokyo. Photograph: Hiro Komae/AP

A woman looks at an electric board last Friday showing the number of days until the start of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in Tokyo. Photograph: Hiro Komae/AP

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The scramble for vaccinations, and who should get them and when, is likely to get only more emotive in the coming months with sport a potentially polarising issue as the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics continues.

Despite polls indicating a large majority of Japanese people don’t want them to go ahead at all, plans remain for the Olympics to start on July 23rd with no-singing and no-high-fiving protocols issued to ensure a “safe and successful games”.

In a characteristic political two-step, the International Olympic Committee has said participants are encouraged to get vaccinated before going to Tokyo. However it won’t be mandatory.

It’s a fudge that conveniently passes the buck to individual athletes, their Olympic organisations, and national governments and contributes further to wider ethical debates about sport’s status in the midst of a pandemic.

Inevitably, many sectors, including in sport, continue to make the case that they deserve to be vaccinated ahead of others

Several countries have said they will vaccinate their Olympic athletes and staff against Covid-19. They include Denmark, Hungary and Israel which has already inoculated most of its delegation. Others such as Germany have said they don’t want athletes queue-jumping.

Israel is at the top of world per capita vaccinations list. But even in countries much further down the list there is a push to have athletes – plus entourage – vaccinated ahead of Tokyo.

The Belgian Olympic Committee have asked the Brussels government for up to 500 vaccines because they don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage. Yet it insists it isn’t asking for preferential treatment ahead of vulnerable groups or frontline healthcare workers.

The apparent contradiction of such a position is at the heart of a potentially bitter debate, and one ranging much wider than the Olympics.

What are the ethics of vaccinating the young, fit and healthy ahead of more vulnerable members of society? Are all those fine words about sport’s importance to society just lip-service or worth backing up with action?

Justifications for vaccinating are already being made. High-profile sportspeople endorsing vaccination will encourage wider society to get the jabs. Public morale needs boosting. Sport represents defiance. Maybe even national prestige is at stake.

Diplomatic access

Just how problematic a topic this is was underlined by the wrangle over whether or not Taoiseach Micheál Martin should travel to meet new US president Joe Biden at the White House.

The traditional St Patrick’s Day schmooze is the sort of diplomatic access other countries can only dream of. Preserving that advantage means that logically it shouldn’t even have been up for discussion.

That both sides appear to have thought better of it illustrates how logic can struggle against charges of queue-jumping.

Inevitably, many sectors, including in sport, continue to make the case that they deserve to be vaccinated ahead of others.

The Games are the IOC’s big earner and some of the revenue generated finds its way to Olympic committees around the world desperately in need of funds

Canada’s IOC grandee Dick Pound has argued the number of doses involved in vaccinating Olympic athletes is comparatively tiny and no public outcry would arise if they were given out.

That may apply to a Canadian audience but might be optimistic elsewhere considering the furore that occurred here last month over how a small number of leftover jabs were dispensed.

In wretched times people become desperate so presuming on indulgence when it comes to sport can presume way too much. It’s not hard to see why either once supposedly sober objective analysis is peeled back.

It’s borderline grotesque that young athletes in prime physical shape might queue-jump to be vaccinated simply to compete, just as any idea about the problem being solely one of optics reveals a badly skewed outlook.

For some countries ahead of the game in terms of vaccine rollout it won’t be an issue. For most however, including Ireland, it presents a real quandary. The rollout timetable here gets uncomfortably close to the Olympics start-date and puts athletes in an invidious position.

Irish sportspeople of all stripes have mostly played the vaccination issue with a straight bat, adopting a position of being prepared to be take it if offered but uneasy about their athletic status giving them preferential treatment.

Bottom line

It’s a difficult one for Olympic prospects in particular. A black and white stance is easy for most but it’s a grey area for those who’ve invested their lives in competing in Tokyo. Yet it looks like unenviable choices will have to be made.

Lurking underneath everything is the suspicion that they’ll be necessary because the Olympics are just too lucrative to be cancelled again; that rather than being about altruistic notions of global morale, the IOC’s determination to go ahead in July is simply rooted in the bottom line.

Billions of dollars are tied up in broadcast rights. Some of the world’s biggest corporations are sponsors. The cost to the Olympic brand of having to cancel last year needs to be recouped. In such circumstances the IOC’s track record for expediency makes it easy to be sceptical.

Admittedly the Games are the IOC’s big earner and some of the revenue generated finds its way to Olympic committees around the world desperately in need of funds to keep sport ticking over in poorer countries.

However it is in such countries that ethical dilemmas over who might get vaccinated are mostly futile because the option doesn’t exist in the first place. The dilemma is more relevant in wealthier countries but is still far from straightforward.

Much of this makes talk of any global Olympic family sound hollow. Platitudes about no one being safe unless everyone is safe jar in the face of what might yet descend into an unseemly competition rooted in purchasing power.

Recently the US basketball legend Charles Barkley argued for high-profile stars in American sport to get preferential treatment when it comes to vaccines because of the amount of tax they pay. It was startlingly crass but only the naive can believe Barkley is alone in pondering such a grubby tot.

It underlines makes the moral conundrum that a lot of individual sportspeople face having to make.

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