When you hear of someone "running out of excuses" in sport, the phrase is usually saved for those in managerial or administrative roles. But thanks to the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes - and specifically those who have not been vaccinated against the virus - now find themselves in that position.

The clock is ticking for them to get jabbed up, and governing bodies are getting increasingly aggressive in their encouragement to do so. The effective vaccine mandate announced in broad terms by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Paralympic Committee and Beijing 2022 Organising Committee is now far from unique.

The motivations for leagues and event organisers to want their athletes to be vaccinated are multiple, ranging from morals to money. There are those making these policies who believe it is important to set a good example for society and promote vaccination and its benefits, I am sure.

I am also sure that the financial implications - higher vaccination rates reduce the risk of transmission, making in-competition outbreaks which could lead to costly postponements or cancellations less likely, while vaccination is also presumably beneficial from an insurance perspective and improves the prospects of admitting ticket-buying spectators - are an even bigger motivating factor.

Yet the message still does not seem to have got through to a lot of athletes. Or perhaps it has, but only after scaremongering and disinformation, because so many top-level athletes remain unvaccinated despite having ample access to jabs and the science - the real science, not Nicki Minaj’s tall tale of tumescent testicles or a meme shared by your crackpot uncle on Facebook - showing the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any potential hazards.

As of the start of last month, fewer than 50 per cent of Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) players had been vaccinated, the WTA told CNN, while the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals was only in a marginally better position, claiming "just above" half had been inoculated.

Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player on the planet, is among those to have expressed vaccine scepticism - as well as a galling lack of understanding of the pandemic at large through the ill-fated Adria Tour last year - and his refusal now to discuss his vaccination status hardly gives confidence that he has been inoculated.

Stefanos Tsitsipas’ reluctance to get jabbed and lack any convincing explanation as to why - brushing the issue off with "it hasn't been mandatory to compete, so I haven't done it" before the US Open as if we are really to believe that bone idleness is the explanation for why a highly successful athlete wishes to abandon the medical consensus - was perhaps more illuminating.

Because by this stage, as now, for a jet-setting international athlete to be unvaccinated is an active choice. The passive have been jabbed. And if athletes believe in making that choice, do fans and the journalists asking questions not deserve a proper explanation as to why? What do they know that they’re not telling us?

Tennis' plight is far from unique. The English Premier League last week said that at 13 of its 20 clubs, fewer than half of players have been fully vaccinated. Golfer Bryson DeChambeau missed the Olympics with COVID-19 yet still does not want to be vaccinated, claiming to be "a healthy, young individual that will continue to work on my health". I am not sure where not being protected against a potentially fatal respiratory illness fits in working on his health, but then I do not have a physics degree.

"It’s just really, really painful when he says something that stupid," someone who knows DeChambeau far better than me once wrote.

Athletes are not alone in their inoculation scepticism. Anti-vaxxers are popping up in all walks of life, and quite how the pandemic has come to be framed in terms of oppression and personal choice by so many, rather than an issue of public health, is another piece for another day and another author more well-versed in psychology. But as a group, it must be said that athletes’ unwillingness to trust the science is especially odd when you consider the number of other occasions when they have been willing to trust doctors and surgeons.

But here we are. Sport is back, in a way, and administrators’ patience is running thin with the unvaccinated. American sports leagues such as the National Football League (NFL) were among the first I noticed baking a competitive advantage for vaccinated players into the rules, in a clear attempt to encourage vaccination, and others have taken note.

NFL players who have been jabbed don’t have to self-isolate if deemed a close contact of someone with COVID-19, potentially saving them from missing games, and are encumbered by fewer restrictions at team facilities. It has led to some, not unreasonably, pointing out that if you are unvaccinated you are a bad team mate and jeopardising the team’s chance of success.

Even this has not persuaded dozens of high-profile players to get vaccinated - and meanwhile in the National Basketball Association, even a New York City mandate that will prevent him from playing in home Brooklyn Nets games cannot convince Kyrie Irving to get vaccinated.

Many Olympic sports may be shorn of team dynamics like this, but it still stands to reason that anyone who is unvaccinated is putting their compatriots at increased risk - both in health terms and of testing positive and being forced to miss an event. This thinking no doubt influenced the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee's decision to make vaccination mandatory for its Beijing 2022 delegation, a move made before organisers issued warning of their effective vaccinate mandate.

Only vaccinated Premier League players were given permission to travel to red-list countries this international window without fear of missing club games on their return, while at the US Open more freedoms were afforded to vaccinated players.

In the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the IOC encouraged and offered to help facilitate vaccination. For Beijing 2022 - perhaps at the behest of the Chinese Government, which has largely kept its border shut for the last 18 months - it has made it all but a requirement to compete. Unvaccinated athletes must quarantine for 21 days in China before they are allowed to join the "closed-loop system" set to be employed at the Winter Games to isolate athletes, officials and event personnel from the rest of the world.

Good luck to anybody trying to win Olympic gold off the back of 21 days cooped up in a hotel room.

An out-and-out ban on unvaccinated athletes was presumably deemed legally unworkable, as is the case for the NFL, Premier League and other governing bodies which clearly want all their athletes inoculated. But make no mistake. This is a vaccine mandate in all but name.

As an aside, there are event organisers to have openly adopted a vaccine mandate. The Lucerne 2021 Universiade is a prime example, and the Cali 2021 Junior Pan American Games another.

Whether literal or implied, more are coming. The Australian Open could well be chief among them, which will really test the convictions of tennis’ holdouts.

It does feel as though the net is closing in on anti-vax athletes. Vaccination is a personal choice and, if someone does not wish to discuss their vaccination status, fair enough. But the rules are increasingly making it clear which elite athletes are not vaccinated, and it seems unlikely the pendulum will swing the other way any time soon.

With zero-COVID strategies abandoned by so much of the world, vaccination appears the most likely route back to "normal" - not that the world has not been permanently warped by the pandemic and the battle lines it has seen drawn. Athletes may stand in the way of and against vaccination if they wish, but they should also be forced to justify that position.

These rules could flush many out into the open and, one would hope, force them to show their working. For I have seen plenty of athletes espouse vaccine scepticism, but am yet to see one good reason why.

Source: https://www.insidethegames.biz