Steve Solomon, a 400-metre sprinter and co-captain of the Australian athletics team, has plenty to think about. The postponed 2020 Olympics are now just six months away and, barring a Covid-19 outbreak in Australia, Solomon will compete in the national championships in April before beginning final preparations for Tokyo. But there is one thing that the sprinter insists is not front of mind for him and his teammates: the coronavirus vaccine. “Everyone is just focused on making sure we are physically and mentally ready for the Games,” he said.
Solomon’s thoughts may be elsewhere, but plenty within the Olympic movement in Australia and overseas are pre-occupied with how the world’s biggest sporting event can take place safely in the midst of a pandemic. The Games are scheduled to begin on 23 July; the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government insist it will go ahead, despite a recent spike in cases in Tokyo. If the Olympics are to proceed, the vaccine offers a potential solution.
“My preference would be to get vaccinated before I go to Japan, certainly,” Solomon said. “If I am not vaccinated by then, I will still go. That is a risk I am willing to take to represent my country. I firmly believe that the vaccine needs to be given first to those parts of the population that are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Athletes are not part of that population.”
Therein lies the problem for sporting organisations that desperately want the Olympics to go ahead. Olympians are typically young, fit and healthy – not a group at high-risk from Covid-19. High-profile IOC member Dick Pound recently called for athletes to jump the vaccine queue, but the IOC has not publicly sought priority from governments. Its official position remains that vaccination will be preferred but not compulsory. The optics of queue-jumping – while thousands in high-risk categories die daily from the virus – are extremely poor.
The Australian Olympic Committee is trying its best to strike the right balance. With the vaccine due to be rolled out in Australia from February, the government’s vaccination campaign will be well underway by the time athletes would need to be vaccinated to ensure immunity in Tokyo.
“The AOC supports the IOC position that vaccination, while not compulsory for the Tokyo Games, is strongly recommended for the safety of athletes and the Japanese community,” said an AOC spokesperson. “We are encouraging our athletes to be vaccinated accordingly.”
However, under the government’s phased national roll-out strategy, more than 13 million Australians in various risk categories will need to be vaccinated before the balance of the general adult population becomes eligible. Given supply chain uncertainties and the unprecedented nature of the roll-out, it is unclear whether that threshold will be reached before July.
“We fully support the national rollout strategy as articulated by the government,” said Dr David Hughes, chief medical officer at the Australian Institute of Sport and the chief doctor to the Australian Olympic team. “The vaccine has to go first to those that are most vulnerable. While of course it would be preferable to have the Australian Olympic team vaccinated before the Olympics, at this stage all our plans are based on the assumption that it is unlikely we will have the team vaccinated prior to Tokyo.”
One way in which Australian athletes could get priority is if they are deemed high risk workers (who will be vaccinated in the second phase of the roll-out). The AOC told Guardian Australia that it has not sought this status for its athletes. “The AOC is continuing to liaise with the IOC, federal and state governments on a range of health and safety initiatives to ensure our athletes can safely prepare for and compete in Tokyo this year,” said a spokesperson.
Professor Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia, said the vaccine priority issue poses an “interesting ethical dilemma”. However, he added that Australian Olympians would arguably be “putting themselves at high risk of infection [by competing at the Olympics], and acting as a role model demonstrating that vaccination is safe, encouraging others to get vaccinated”. Esterman added: “I think from both of those angles, vaccination could be justified.”
Given the relatively small numbers involved – around 500 Olympians, plus coaches and staff – giving Olympians priority would make minimal practical difference; in the first phase of the roll-out alone, almost 700,000 individuals will be vaccinated. “There is no reason, being fit and healthy, why they shouldn’t get the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Esterman says. “We have ample doses available that vaccinating them first would have no impact on the rollout.”
The federal sports minister, Senator Richard Colbeck, told Guardian Australia the government’s vaccine roadmap did not currently prioritise Australia’s Olympians. He added: “The government will be consulting with the representatives of the AOC and national sports bodies on the rollout of the vaccine over coming months and understand their needs in the lead up to the Olympics.”
Olympic team doctor Hughes will be watching the roll-out closely, in the hope his athletes can be vaccinated before travelling to Japan. “We are very happy to be pleasantly surprised, if the roll-out goes efficiently and smoothly, but we are not counting on that,” he says. “We believe we can get the team into Tokyo and out again safely whether they are vaccinated or not.”
For now, as the countdown to Tokyo continues, Australia’s Olympians remain in a wait-and-see mode. “It has been a hot topic of discussion among my family and teammates,” said track cyclist Kaarle McCulloch, an Olympic bronze medallist and four-time world champion. “I would feel comfortable having the vaccine, so long as we have vaccinated the people who are most at risk. I don’t believe we should get priority – I think that would be unfair – but I hope that by May or June those priority populations will have been vaccinated and it won’t be an issue.”
Covid-19 might be an unprecedented hurdle for Australia’s Olympians, but, for McCulloch, needing a vaccination before travelling to a race is not actually that unusual. “Because I have competed across the globe, I have been getting vaccinated my entire career,” she said. “I will certainly have the Covid-19 vaccine.”