Should the Olympics have required all athletes to be vaccinated?

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Virologist Angela Rasmussen uncorked this provocative take earlier today:

That’s a doozy. Remember that there are three criteria for banning a drug under world anti-doping rules: It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete, it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance, or it violates the spirit of sport. A substance that meets any two of those three can be prohibited. (I still don’t understand why cigarettes aren’t banned since nicotine probably enhances performance more than anything in weed does.) It’s not hard to argue that declining a COVID vaccine creates a potential health risk to the athlete and that it violates the “spirit of sport” for the athlete to insist on making himself potentially infectious to the athletes competing against him.

So if marijuana was a no-no, why wasn’t vaccination a yes-yes?

According to ABC, some 83 percent of American Olympians are vaccinated. That’s a much higher rate than the overall U.S. population but means the number of unvaccinated could be in triple digits:

About 100 of the 613 U.S. athletes descending on Tokyo for the Olympics are unvaccinated, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s medical chief said hours before Friday night’s opening ceremony.

Medical director Jonathan Finnoff said 567 of the American athletes had filled out their health histories as they prepared for the trip, and estimated 83% had replied they were vaccinated.

“Eighty-three percent is actually a substantial number and we’re quite happy with it,” Finnoff said.

At least one American athlete who’s unvaccinated has recovered from COVID and should be naturally immune at the Games.

There’s an obvious reply to Rasmussen: How the hell can the IOC require all Olympians to be vaccinated when most countries have little to no supply of the vaccine? What are athletes from impoverished countries supposed to do? That’s a fair point, except that reportedly 85 percent of residents in the Olympic Village have been immunized. If that’s true then it must be the case that athletes from most or all countries have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated, possibly with the help of the IOC and their national governments. A vaccine mandate might not have been an unworkable obstacle.

Another objection to the mandate is that it’s unnecessary because the unvaxxed athletes are no threat to the Japanese population or to (most of) their fellow Olympians. The great majority of athletes are vaccinated, as I just noted, and the Olympic Village is operating in a quarantine “bubble” designed to keep personnel separate from the rest of Japan. Two problems, though. Two U.S. athletes have already been infected by COVID and will miss the Games — and both were vaccinated. With the Delta variant being so infectious, it’s possible that an outbreak triggered by an unvaccinated athlete inside the Olympic Village will sideline many other athletes whether they’re immunized or not. Events could conceivably need to be canceled because most of the field is isolating due to COVID.

As for the “bubble,” it’s already burst. Repeatedly.

The isolation bubble system that Olympic organisers have set up at the Tokyo Games village to control COVID-19 is already broken, and there is a risk that infections could spread more widely from inside it, a prominent public health expert said on Tuesday…

Insufficient testing at the bubble’s border and the impossibility of controlling people’s movements mean that the Games could exacerbate the spread of the infectious Delta variant of the virus, [Kenji Shibuya] said.

Continual reports of cases that went undetected at the airport, along videos showing interaction between athletes, staff and journalists, add to concerns that airborne transmission will occur within the village and venues, he added.

No fewer than 110 cases have been recorded inside the Olympic bubble this month, including 13 athletes. Nineteen cases were recorded today alone; three of the 19 are athletes and one of them is staying at the Olympic Village. There’s no word on how many were vaccinated but it’s a safe bet that many weren’t and that they might have avoided infection if they had been.

So, again, should the IOC have required it as a condition of participating? It might have convinced many of the holdouts to get vaccinated. Anti-vax football stars are facing a hard choice right now thanks to the new rules laid down by the NFL yesterday. Players want to play and subject themselves to a lot of physical punishment to earn the privilege. Asking them to endure a little more isn’t asking a lot.

Here’s Scott Gottlieb lamenting that the U.S. failed to set an example here. Even if the IOC wasn’t willing to ban unvaccinated athletes, the USOC could have disqualified American athletes who refused to get their shots. I hope their decision not to do so works out okay for them and the team.