As he toured the Athletes Village on Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach issued a gentle plea to all competitors to get vaccinated before the Tokyo Olympics — if a vaccine is available.
Bach, who is visiting Tokyo this week for the first time since the Olympics were postponed, again said the vaccine would not be a requirement, but he urged athletes and fans to help protect themselves and others.
“The IOC will appeal to the athletes and other participants — in particular all those who are living here in the village — to have a vaccination,” Bach said, wearing a white mask with the Olympic rings on the right side. “But it will be their free decision.
“I’m sure many, many of the athletes and the participants will follow this advice, or maybe don’t even need it and will do it on their own.”
Bach also said a “reasonable number” of fans should be able to attend the Tokyo Olympics with or without a vaccine.
And, before heading to the new $1.4 billion National Stadium in central Tokyo, he said confidently that the postponed games will open on July 23.
Bach was greeted by a few protesters outside the stadium chanting: “Get out IOC. Get out Olympics.”
Japan has controlled the virus comparatively well, with about 1,900 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in a country of about 125 million. However, cases have been rising lately, particularly in Tokyo and the northern island of Hokkaido.
In a more private setting, Bach has spoken directly about Olympic athletes’ responsibility to consider the vaccine.
In an on-line session last month with the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, Bach was asked — among other things — if athletes would be “forced” to be vaccinated. The Associated Press obtained a 90-minute recording of the session, which included more than 100 athletes or their representatives. It was monitored by Kirsty Coventry, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and chairperson of the Athletes’ Commission.
In that session, Bach said “we are not there yet” in terms of requiring a vaccine, but he made his feelings clear that athletes owe it to each other — and themselves — when thinking about a vaccination.
“Every athlete should look at his fellow athletes and take this into consideration,” Bach said to the commission. “Because the vaccination is not just about the individual. It’s a protection for the entire community.
“And there I think each and everyone of us has a responsibility in this crisis, a responsibility not just for us individually but for all of the people who surround us and who are our fellow team members, who are fellow Olympians.”
Two vaccine makers have said preliminary results from their late-stage studies suggest their experimental vaccines are strongly protective. Early results provide strong signals that the vaccine could prevent a majority of disease when large groups of people are vaccinated.
Not all athletes are likely to want to take the vaccine. For some it will be a question of individual liberty. Others will fear vaccines against COVID-19 are being rushed, and possibly unsafe. Some could fear falling ill after taking the vaccine, jeopardizing their Olympic chances.
“We can solve this crisis like other challenges only if we are in solidarity, and if we all take responsibility,” Bach said in the online conference with athletes in early October, acknowledging some athletes would see taking the vaccine as a “sacrifice.”
In Tokyo, Bach said that nurses, doctors and health care workers should be first in line for a vaccine, ahead of healthy, young athletes.
As well as the 11,000 Olympic athletes, there could be tens of thousands of officials, judges, VIPs, and media and broadcasters traveling to Japan for the games.
Tokyo Olympic officials and the International Olympic Committee have said that athletes testing positive at the games could be barred from competing, similar to the way a doping suspect is removed.