Without clear rules on the need for a vaccine before Tokyo, the New Zealand Olympic Committee can only hope that its athletes are vaccinated
When the New Zealand Olympic team arrives in Tokyo, 98% will have been vaccinated. At least that’s what the New Zealand Olympic Committee expects.
But although vaccinations are mandatory for members of the support team, the committee has much less control over the athletes it sends to represent New Zealand.
“Vaccination is an important part of our countermeasures,” said Ashley Abbott, director of communications for the New Zealand Olympic Committee. “It is the responsibility of the NZOC to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to protect the health of the NZ team.”
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The committee was successful in pushing for athletes to avoid queues for vaccines to ensure they could travel to Japan safely, which created a new category of “national significance.”
He says his goal now is to get athletes already overseas to vaccination stations, with help from the International Olympic Committee and Pfizer. “That’s the current goal for us,” Abbott said.
However, he was unable to comment on the committee’s appeal if the athletes refused to be vaccinated, potentially endangering the full health of the New Zealand team in the Olympic Village at a crucial time.
The agreement that athletes must sign to join the team requires a pre-game health assessment and ECG, and that he follows the guidelines of the games vaccination schedule.
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The International Olympic Committee has not made vaccinations compulsory for the games, although IOC President Thomas Bach said last year that he “strongly encourages” athletes to obtain them.
The ripple effect appears to be that for the New Zealand team here, it will largely be up to the individual to comply with the committee’s immunization expectations.
“Our athletes know they are extremely lucky to go out there to compete,” Abbot said. “And with that privilege comes responsibility.”
She expects the two percent of athletes who may not be vaccinated to be ready to access it.
“The two percent may include athletes based overseas who are unable to access a vaccine due to their location,” she said.
Although the NZOC does not mandate vaccination among athletes, it expects absorption to be high.
“They will do their part and follow all necessary precautions to ensure their safety and ensure that there is no additional risk to Japanese public health,” Abbott said.
It seems that the committee is prepared to do anything to ensure that athletes are vaccinated without making it a rule. In addition to working with Pfizer and the International Olympic Committee to vaccinate athletes already abroad, he claims to support and educate all athletes who express reluctance.
“We provide support and education through our health team to all athletes in New Zealand who have questions or who may be unsure or uncomfortable with the vaccination,” Abbott said.
Vaccination decisions by some New Zealand athletes have already been in the spotlight, with Whangamatā surfing champion Ella Williams reluctant to make the jab widely publicized in April.
A few weeks later, she had decided to go, posting on Facebook that she was “grateful and privileged” to have had this chance.
But what is to ensure that all the athletes on the New Zealand team will follow suit?
Dr Dave Gerrard, professor of sports medicine at the University of Otago, a former Olympic swimmer and team doctor for the Kiwi, said the proposed rate of 98% would be an impressive amount of absorption.
He hoped athletes were motivated to get the vaccine for a number of reasons.
“They should do it to protect themselves and their teammates,” he said. “But also to be respectful of their hosts in Japan – we are guests after all. I would hate to think that the legacy of the games has been spread by the community in the host country.
He credited the work of Dr Bruce Hamilton, leader of the Olympic medical team, in educating reluctant athletes. “The point is, you wouldn’t want to train for four years and then find out you can’t compete,” Gerrard said.
He has received messages from uncertain athletes about the vaccine lest it trigger a performance-enhancing drug test, but he was able to put such concerns to bed. “I can give a gold guarantee that this is not true.”
Gerrard has been part of the Olympics since the 1960s in a range of roles such as athlete, team medic and chef de mission. He says these games will be one of a kind. “It will definitely be a very different game than before,” he said.
But while the medical team encourages vaccinations, on paper it is still up to the athletes to adhere to them.
NZOC guidelines still require support staff to get the jab while simply cheering on the athletes.
“Note the ‘expectation’ for athletes versus the ‘must’ for the NZOC and performance support staff,” Abbott said.