Without clear rules about the need for a vaccine before Tokyo, the New Zealand Olympic Committee can only hope its athletes are vaccinated 

When the New Zealand Olympic team arrives in Tokyo, 98 percent will have been vaccinated. At least that’s what the New Zealand Olympic Committee expects.

But although vaccinations will be compulsory for support team members, the committee has significantly less control over the athletes it is sending to represent New Zealand.

“Vaccination is an important part of our countermeasures,” said Ashley Abbott, communications director for the New Zealand Olympic Committee. “It’s the responsibility of the NZOC to ensure appropriate steps are in place to protect the health of the NZ Team.”

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The committee successfully lobbied for athletes to jump vaccine queues to ensure they can travel to Japan safely, resulting in a new category of “national significance”.

It says its focus is now on getting athletes already overseas to vaccination stations, with the International Olympic Committee and Pfizer helping them. “This is the current focus for us,” Abbott said.

However, it was unable to comment on the committee’s recourse should athletes refuse to get the vaccine, potentially jeopardising the full health of the New Zealand team in the Olympic Village at a crucial time.

The agreement athletes must sign to join the team requires a pre-games health evaluation and an ECG, and that it follow the vaccination schedule guidelines for the games.

The International Olympic Committee has not made vaccinations mandatory for the games, although IOC President Thomas Bach said last year he “strongly encourages” athletes to get them.

The flow-on effect appears to be that for the New Zealand team here, it will be largely up to the individual to comply with the committee’s vaccination expectations.

“Our athletes know they’re extremely lucky to be going over there to compete,” said Abbot. “And with that privilege comes responsibility.”

She expects the two percent of athletes who may not be vaccinated may be set to access it. 

“The two percent may comprise athletes based offshore who aren’t able to access a vaccine due to their location,” she said.

Although the NZOC is not mandating vaccination amongst athletes, it expects uptake to be high.

“They’ll be doing their bit and following all the necessary precautions to ensure they stay safe and to ensure there’s no added risk to Japanese public health,” said Abbott.

It appears committee is ready to do everything to ensure the athletes are vaccinated short of making it a rule. Along with working with Pfizer and the International Olympic Committee to get vaccines to athletes already offshore, it claims to be supporting and educating any athletes who express reluctance.

“We’re providing support and education through our health team for any athletes in New Zealand that have queries or who may be uncertain or uncomfortable with vaccination,” said Abbott.

The vaccine decisions of some New Zealand athletes have already come under the spotlight, with Whangamatā surfing champ Ella Williams’ hesitance to get the jab widely reported on in April.

A few weeks later she had decided to go for it, posting on Facebook that she was “grateful and privileged” to have had the chance.

But what ensures all of the athletes on the New Zealand team will follow suit?

Dr Dave Gerrard, a sports medicine professor from Otago University, former Olympic swimmer and doctor to the Kiwi team, said the proposed rate of 98 percent would be an impressive amount of uptake.

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’d hate to think the legacy of the games was community spread in the host country.”

He credited the work of Dr Bruce Hamilton, head of the Olympic medical team, in educating reluctant athletes. “The thing is, you wouldn’t want to train for four years and then find that you can’t compete,” Gerrard said.

He has received messages from athletes unsure about the vaccine for fears it might trip a performance-enhancing drug test, but he was able to put such worries to bed. “I can give a gilt-edged surety that that is not true.”

Gerrard has been a part of the Olympics since the 1960s in a range of roles such as athlete, team doctor and chef de mission. He says these games are set to be one of a kind. “It will certainly be a very different games than ever before,” he said.

But while the medical team has been encouraging vaccinations, on paper it is still completely up to the athletes to comply.

The guidelines of the NZOC still require support staff to get the jab while merely encouraging the athletes.

“Note ‘expectation’ for athletes versus ‘must’ for NZOC and performance support staff,” said Abbott.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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