Should Olympians get to jump the vaccine queue?


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The Olympic vaccine debate is heating up

The Summer Olympics are less than three months away. In Normal Times, this is when we’d be wondering things like, Can Andre De Grasse win the men’s 100 metres? Will the Canadian women’s soccer team reach the podium for the third straight time? How many medals are in store for Canada’s swimmers?

Instead, two considerably less fun questions are dominating the pre-Olympic discourse in Canada: 1) Will the Games actually happen? And 2) Should our athletes get priority access to coronavirus vaccines? The answer to the first one is still we’ll see. The answer to the second is even more complicated.

Opinions on the athlete-vaccine issue generally fall into one of two buckets. On one side are those who say: No way a bunch of young, healthy athletes should jump the queue when many of our nurses, teachers, essential workers and people in hot spots haven’t even been taken care of. The other argument boils down to: Look, by the time July rolls around, everyone in the athletes’ age group will probably have at least their first shot anyway. And the athletes are facing a potentially risky environment in Tokyo. So let’s just get them all jabbed now to give everyone more peace of mind.

That’s essentially the argument being made by Canada’s various national sport organizations, who are now calling for the Canadian Olympic Committee and the federal government to get the athletes, coaches and support staff who are bound for Tokyo fully vaccinated right away. “I would love to see the government come out and say this is in the national interest, these athletes represent all of us, so let’s get this taken care of so everyone is safe and healthy,” said Athletics Canada CEO David Bedford. Swimming Canada high performance director John Atkinson said getting athletes vaccinated “needs to take much more of an urgency because the clock is ticking. We have to do everything we can do as a nation to give them the safest experience while representing our country.”

The COC is (at least publicly) sticking to the International Olympic Committee’s official position. “We maintain that Canada’s front-line workers and most vulnerable populations should be the priority for vaccinations,” said CEO David Shoemaker. “With the growing numbers of vaccines available to Canadians, we are hopeful that athletes will have access to them prior to Tokyo, which would provide an additional layer of protection to the significant countermeasures that have been put in place.” Canada’s athletes are falling in line with that messaging too. None have said publicly that they ought to jump the queue.

But that’s already happening in other countries. Today, South Korea began giving fast-track doses to the 930 athletes, coaches and other support staff it’s sending to the Tokyo Olympics. Australia announced earlier this week that it will do the same for the 2,000 or so of its people going to the Olympics and Paralympics. Hungary, Israel, Lithuania and Serbia were already in the process of vaccinating their Olympic and Paralympic teams. Mexico and New Zealand have placed their athletes in a priority group. Meanwhile, vaccine-producing powerhouses like the United States and Great Britain don’t have to worry about prioritizing their athletes. Many of them have already been inoculated as part of their country’s normal rollout. China and Russia are even offering to give vaccines to other countries’ Olympic and Paralympic teams, perhaps as a way to win goodwill and prestige in the international community.

So if Canada ends up sending not-fully-vaccinated athletes to Tokyo, it runs the risk of being at a competitive disadvantage — to say nothing of the health risks involved for those going and for the people they come into contact with after they return home. On the other hand, moving athletes to the front of the line at this particular dicey moment could enrage a lot of average Canadians. It’s a tough spot.

There’s a chance this works itself out. Many of us in Canada remain frustrated with the vaccine rollout, but it’s improving. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that, by the time the Olympics open on July 23, every Canadian who wants to will be fully vaccinated. If you believe that, then giving athletes special treatment right now becomes more palatable. But no one knows for sure, and the anxiety created by that uncertainty will keep fuelling the debate for a while. Read more about top Canadian sports officials’ calling for athletes to be fully vaccinated in this story by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss whether or not the number of Covid-19 cases in athletes should tighten safety measures in Tokyo. 8:36

Quickly…

Canada’s Olympic swimming trials were pushed back. With Ontario under a state of emergency as it struggles with coronavirus infections, the meet in Toronto is moving from May 24-28 to June 19-23 — only a month before the Olympics open. If the new dates don’t work out, Swimming Canada said it will look at holding the trials “elsewhere in North America.” Six swimmers have already been named to the Canadian Olympic team: reigning world champions Kylie Masse and Maggie Mac Neil, 2016 Olympic star Penny Oleksiak, two-time world championship individual medallist Sydney Pickrem, and medal hopefuls Taylor Ruck and Markus Thormeyer. The rest of the squad was supposed to be decided at the May trials and a June qualifying meet in Toronto, but the latter is off now that the trials have been bumped into its slot. Read more about how the selection of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic swimming teams are being affected here.

The women’s world curling championship starts tomorrow. Germany’s status remains uncertain after two of its team members tested positive for the coronavirus prior to entering the Calgary bubble. But Alberta health officials ruled yesterday that the event can go ahead, which was a relief for skip Kerri Einarson’s Canadian team. After winning the Scotties for the first time last year, they missed the chance to play in the worlds when the tournament in Prince George, B.C., was cancelled due to the pandemic. A second consecutive Scotties titles in February in Calgary gave them another shot to win Canada’s first women’s world title since 2018 (Jennifer Jones) and also to clinch an Olympic sport for Canada with a top-six finish. Read more about the women’s worlds here.

More McDavid magic: With three assists in Edmonton’s 3-1 win over potential playoff foe Winnipeg last night, the Oilers superstar now has an absurd 15 points in his last five games. He’s pretty much lapped the field in the scoring race, which he leads by 17 points over teammate Leon Draisaitl with only nine games left. McDavid is now on pace for exactly 100 points in a 56-game season. Watch his nine best highlights of the season in this video by CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo.

And finally…

Looking for a sports thing your kids are actually allowed to do? That’s the case for many parents in areas of the country where youth sports are currently shut down. Feeling frustrated by this, a 14-year-old Andre De Grasse fan from Montreal named Jesse Briscoe came up with an idea for a virtual race and reached out to his favourite sprinter’s people about it. De Grasse likes it, and the RACE WITH ME! Virtual Challenge was created. Starting May 1, kids can run 400 metres at a local track (or measure the distance out on the street, at the park or anywhere really) and upload their times and video at www.racewithme.ca. The website will have a leaderboard and will also be taking donations for “youth mental health charities,” according to Athletics Canada. Read more about the challenge here.

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