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Jon Tibbs | Should athletes jump the queue for Covid-19 vaccines?

Jon Tibbs, chairman and founder of communications agency JTA, says National Olympic Committees and International Federations are receiving ‘mixed messages’ about whether athletes should be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccines

Job Tibbs

The vote opposing the motion was 17-4: “This house believes that athletes going to the Tokyo 2020 Games should be prioritised for their Covid-19 vaccines.”

“Quite right; a no-brainer!” I hear some readers shout about the vote outcome.

Except this was no ordinary debating chamber. This was the “JTA Lockdown Zoom Debating Society”, where all staff get to debate hot topics in the sports industry once a month.

To be clear, JTA is a company with 21 staff around the world, each of whom are dependent on the Olympic Movement ecosystem to put bread on the table, pay their rent/mortgages and put fuel in their cars.

Turkeys voting for Christmas?

Well, I was surprised, but also admit to being a little bit proud that our staff’s personal principles outweighed personal gain.

By the way, for the record, I threw in some arguments in favour of the motion. Shows how much attention the team pay to their chairman!

I guess the writing had been on the wall in the previous staff debate when we deliberated the right of athletes to protest on the Olympic podium (aka Rule 50).

It was a narrow loss for the athletes that day, but JTA’s youthful staff debated strongly around compassion and rights and equality, and many of the values that uphold the Olympic Movement.

During our vaccination debate it quickly became apparent that it was based on personal sentiment. There were few academic studies or high-profile advocates quoted to support a staff speech from the Zoom floor, unlike in previous weeks. Emotion and individual experiences held sway. Those with close friends and relatives who are vulnerable to the potential horrors of Covid-19 spoke from the heart.

Counter arguments were put forward with elegant solutions to the challenge. These included sponsored programmes to pay for additional vaccine production for athletes with a matching sponsor fee to support faster and greater vaccine distribution in developing nations.

Another argument was that, once qualified, Olympic athletes cease to become mere individuals in society. They become national assets who will help a nation focus and come together in hope and unity during an otherwise dark time; national assets who could help, just a bit, in combatting the mental health issues that are rising fast during lockdown.

Our debate was not helped by the ambiguity in the media coverage on this most sensitive of topics. And JTA’s clients were also receiving mixed messages.

For example, a few weeks back, some National Olympic Committee (NOC) clients reported that they were encouraged to get their athletes vaccinated as a priority, ahead of Tokyo, “out of respect for the Japanese hosts”.  Other NOC and International Federation (IF) clients believed the general sentiment was the opposite and they should resist any talk of prioritising elite athletes for vaccinations. After all, hadn’t the Premier League, the NBA and NHL, amongst other bodies, rejected the idea of buying vaccine stock for their athletes to jump the line?

Nevertheless, IOC grandee, Dick Pound, floated the idea that vaccinating athletes was the only way to guarantee the Games would happen. The day after our JTA debate (January 23), media sources claimed that the IOC was in talks with the WHO’s COVAX project, a sub-group of vaccine experts accelerating distribution to developing nations. The Telegraph claimed the IOC was prioritising Covid-19 jabs for Olympic competitors where national programmes are yet to begin.

However, the notion that any athletes, anywhere in the world, should be prioritised was met with a chorus of moral, ethical and medical outrage. Media articles had us imagining the scenario of a fit, young athlete in a smart tracksuit being ushered through a surgery past the old and needy waiting for their miracle shots. The athlete’s rushed jab inevitably results in someone more in need being sent home and having to come back another day. Emotive stuff.

The Daily Mail recently highlighted the pressure on athletes having to think about jumping the line in their local surgery on top of their stress around speculation that the Games may not even happen. All whilst they are trying to train and qualify under lockdown conditions.

No wonder the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, moved to clarify the situation again on January 27 by stating at a press briefing that the IOC was “not in favour of athletes jumping the queue” for vaccines.

Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press cleverly signed off his excellent column on this subject (January 28) by stating that cutting in line “just wouldn’t be playing fair”. Smart to evoke the Olympic ideal of Fair Play. However, the received wisdom is that many nations will automatically fast track their Olympic hopefuls for a vaccine.

And so, at the time of submission of this article, the IOC and the various NOCs and governments around the world face a complex dilemma.

Each nation will need to find its own solution based on their moral, ethical and medical imperatives. This is bound to bring out the best and worst in human nature.

Meanwhile, the JTA team has spoken: 17-4 against cutting the line. But I for one don’t envy the athletes or officials in the choices that lie ahead.