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Countries split on whether to prioritize vaccines for Tokyo Olympic athletes: survey

Hidemasa Nakamura, right, games delivery officer at the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, is seen announcing guidelines for preventing coronavirus infections ahead of the Tokyo Games, in the capital's Chuo Ward on Feb. 3, 2021. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- While vaccinations against the coronavirus have begun in Japan, countries around the world have taken varying responses regarding whether to prioritize shots for athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

    The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged summer Tokyo Games athletes to get vaccinated, but questions remain over when and how inoculations will happen, and one foreign media outlet has posited that COVID-19 vaccines for participating athletes may become a future political issue.

    Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, called vaccinations "the first step toward hope" in a Feb. 18 press conference following her appointment as the committee's new chief. In Japan, health care workers are currently being vaccinated; after them, inoculations for older people and individuals with preexisting conditions will be prioritized.

    Vaccinations for members of the public aged 16 or older will follow those groups, and are estimated to begin any time depending on supply. At a Feb. 16 press conference, Minister in charge of Administrative Reform Taro Kono, who is heading Japan's vaccinations, said, "I cannot make any comment without examining the status of local governments' preparations."

    The Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has indicated a negative view on priority vaccinations for athletes, and it is believed shots for participants in the games will be administered around the same time as they will be for the general public. A JOC representative said, "Vaccines need to be administered twice, and it's necessary to work backwards and get a handle on information regarding when inoculations should be carried out. Whether an athlete will be vaccinated is left to their individual discretion."

    In February the IOC released a playbook for athletes and affiliated individuals that outlines rules for preventing infections. It emphasized that vaccination prior to the Olympics is advised, and read: "This is to contribute to the safe environment of the games, but also out of respect for the Japanese people."

    Although vaccination is not a prerequisite for games participation, the IOC has recommended each country's delegations receive vaccines in advance in their respective countries. IOC chief Thomas Bach has also requested Japan take similar measures as the host nation.

    The IOC surveyed National Olympic Committees (NOC) and asked them about the state of vaccinations in each country and region to smoothly proceed with athlete vaccinations. The results have not been disclosed, but the countries gave a variety of responses.

    The Wall Street Journal's digital edition ran an article on Feb. 15 headlined, "Covid Vaccines for the Tokyo Olympics Have Become a Political Issue." It did a survey on 20 countries, and said that many of them are considering advising athletes to get vaccinated, even if it provokes popular objection.

    For example, Greece's Olympic Committee has asked the national government to consider priority vaccines for athletes, and New Zealand is set to discuss expedited shots if the rollout isn't in time for athletes ahead of the Tokyo Games. In its survey response, the Russian Olympic Committee said the country is equipped to offer full-scale support if necessary.

    Meanwhile, countries including Hungary, Serbia and Israel have already begun administering shots to athletes who wish to be vaccinated. According to Reuters, Hungary began athlete vaccinations at the end of January to ensure they can safely participate in preliminaries for Olympic qualification outside its borders. In all, 868 individuals are eligible for priority vaccines, including those trying out for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

    Some countries are treating priority vaccinations with caution. The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) surveyed some 1,700 athletes who might compete in the Olympics, with responses gathered from 676 individuals. Of them, 72% answered that they would prefer to be vaccinated as part of regular procedures, while only 18% said they wanted priority vaccinations.

    Alfons Hormann, president of the DOSB, said the organization was able to confirm that its priority measures for athletes are unnecessary, and that he hoped sufficient amounts of the vaccine will be provided ahead of the games.

    The Japanese government has been preparing for the Tokyo Games while maintaining that it is possible to hold them without vaccinations, but COVID-19 shots may be an effective way to restore momentum for the games to its original level. But a situation in which disputes surrounding priority vaccines for athletes causes a public outcry should be avoided.

    A senior official on the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said, "Even if we're in the middle of vaccinations for the general public, it may be difficult to obtain their understanding for prioritizing athlete vaccinations. The athletes themselves would likely not want this, and there are also athletes who are hesitant about being inoculated."

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara and Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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