Canadian athletes say vaccine priority must go to vulnerable individuals, not Olympians

Reigning Olympic wrestling gold medallist Erica Wiebe instantly thought of her parents upon reading the headline.

Even the suggestion, as made by long-time IOC member Dick Pound on Wednesday, that athletes should be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines caused her to ask, “would I want to get vaccinated before my mum and dad?

“They’re actually planning on going to Tokyo with me, and they hope to be vaccinated prior, but they’re in an at-risk population,” says the Stittsville, Ont., native. “So, if I had the choice, no I wouldn’t want to be prioritized over them.”

With her parents squarely in mind, Wiebe decided to push back against the speculation on social media by writing:

“I want to represent Canada in Tokyo. I want to continue to inspire the next generation of young boys and girls. But I need my community to be safe first and that means a measured, risk-based vaccination plan.”

Wiebe took pride when fellow Rio gold medallist and two-time defending trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan liked her post. Because, as she puts it, “this is simply bigger than just sport or the Olympics.”

With COVID-19 cases spiking throughout Japan — threatening to yet again derail the already postponed Summer Games — Pound sparked the debate following an interview with Sky News.

Pound accelerates debate

Speculating that there would be no public outcry if athletes jumped the queue, Pound argued that “the most realistic way” of ensuring that the Tokyo Olympics could safely forge ahead was for athletes to be prioritized.

A debate Pound accelerated on Thursday after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures.

Speaking on the future prospects of the embattled Olympics — which are a little more than six months away and already over budget — Pound told the BBC, “I can’t be certain because the ongoing elephant in the room would be the surges in the virus.” 

Wiebe, however, isn’t swayed.

“I think the Olympic movement stands in its purity for a lot more than just putting athletes on stage to entertain the world. The most important people that need to get the vaccine are front-line workers; those most at risk and people in long-term care homes — they are the ones that need to be prioritized.”

Wiebe wouldn’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine before her parents, who she says are in a high-risk category. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Like Wiebe, three-time Olympian and gymnastics champion Kyle Shewfelt also believes that Canadian athletes aren’t interested in jumping any queues. 

“They’re already healthy, they’re in an age bracket that hasn’t been shown to be super vulnerable to fatal outcomes from this disease,” says the Calgary native. “From a moral standpoint, it doesn’t sit right [with me].”

In fact, both Shewfelt and Wiebe, take inspiration from last March when the entire sports world was still reeling from the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it wouldn’t be sending its athletes to the 2020 Tokyo Games before the IOC officially postponed the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Right side of history

Athletes were on the right side of history then, says Shewfelt, and he wants them to remain that way with the vaccine rollout.

“The vaccine is liquid gold; it needs to be protecting the vulnerable and front-line workers first.”

And while he understands the economic incentives of the IOC, Shewfelt adds, “Our entire society has been ripped to the core, businesses are closed, people are dying. As much as I want the Olympics to move forward — because I love the Olympics — there’s isn’t a doubt in my mind where [vaccines] need to go. The Olympics can still move ahead safely, regardless of whether athletes get vaccinated or not.”

Olympic champion gymnast Kyle Shewfelt believes the Olympics can move forward ‘regardless of whether the vaccine or not.’ (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

While the Games themselves may look different, he points to the recent success of the NHL bubble, or even in his sport of gymnastics where a successful test event was held just this past November in Tokyo.

Shewfelt says the key for athletes “is to find ways to safely allow them to return to their gyms, pools, weight rooms, and tracks.

“That’s where they need to be — focused on their training and keeping their body healthy and in shape.”

As for a vaccine, Shewfelt believes athletes can afford to wait.

“Sorry, I’ve trained for 20 years in [Gymnastics]. I went to three Olympic Games and they were the most important moments in my life. But the vaccine is a larger societal problem. And the solution is getting it to the most vulnerable and exposed; not to the athletes.” 

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