Sports: Contradictory stands on vaccine mandates hurting players

By Prabhjot Singh*

In less than five months after Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic was  prevented  not only from participating in the Australian Open  but also from entering Australia for three years  for not adhering to the Covid-19 vaccine mandate, Florida administration threatened  to fine the organisers of Special Olympics $27.5 million for violating a state law against such rules .

As a sequence to this action, the Special Olympics has dropped a coronavirus vaccine mandate for its games in Orlando from June 5 to 12.

While Australia mandates all players to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to compete in any major sporting event, Florida law bars businesses from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. 

Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis on Friday announced  that the organizers of Special Olympics  had removed the requirement for its competition in the state, which is scheduled to run from June 5 to June 12.

“In Florida, we want all of them to be able to compete. We do not think it’s fair or just to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honour or integrity,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando.

The Florida health department told the Special Olympics of the fine in a letter on Thursday that it would be fined $27.5 million for 5,500 violations of state law for requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for attendees or participants.

The Florida law prohibits businesses or sports organisations  from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. DeSantis has strongly opposed vaccine mandates and other virus policies endorsed by the federal government.

In a statement on its website, the Special Olympics said people who were registered but unable to participate because of the mandate can now attend.

The Covid-19  is heading to complete its circle after the Novak Djokovic incident. After a court slapped a three year entry ban on the Serbian tennis star, the then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that Djokovic could be allowed to enter the country sooner under appropriate conditions.

There is a growing demand to end all vaccine mandates. In Canada, one of the contestants for the Conservative Party leadership, Pierre Poilievre, is promising to end the COVID mandates as his main poll plank.

Rallies, protests and demonstrations  demanding end to vaccine mandates dotted the entire North America during the past few months. Some European countries have already withdrawn them.

“While the ban on Novak is for three years, there is the possibility of him returning in the right circumstances, which would be examined at the time,” the then Australian Prime Minister told media. Intriguingly,  Scott Morrison and his party lost the  Federal elections last month and  have been replaced by Labour Government headed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese 

Looking back at the Djokovic story , the Serbian star  reportedly told the Australian authorities that he had been granted a medical exemption from being vaccinated for the coronavirus, but after his arrival, the Australian Border Force cancelled his visa for failing to meet COVID-19 entry requirements.

Strict enforcement of vaccine mandates is not in Australia alone, there are several other countries that do not allow athletes who show signs of Covid-19 or test positive for the disease.

It happened in Korea where the Asia Cup Hockey Championship for women was held  and several teams, including India, were not allowed to continue in the tournament after some of their players tested positive for Covid.

Djokovic has been  the winner of the  Australian Open in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2021. He, however, had unceremonious ouster from the 2022 edition of the Australian Open.

The contradictory stands of different nations or their provinces over the enforcement of the vaccine mandates have been dividing the  sports associations and organisers. At times the participating athletes are embarrassed over denial of participation in events for which they  prepare themselves over a period of time  at a substantial cost.

Though the sporting activity has been virtually restored with stands getting packed as during the pre-Covid times, some of the events still stand postponed or held in abeyance. The 2022 Asian Games, for example,  which were scheduled to be held in China in September this year have been postponed till next year.

Tokyo 2020 were the first Olympic games in history that were postponed and held exactly a year later in 2021. And the organisers did not allow any spectators in the stands besides prohibiting families of athletes and  officials from attending the games.

Not only Olympics, most of the major sporting events held in 2021 and the first quarter of 2022 also remained close to spectators in stands. It is time to review the decisions, especially those relating to vaccine mandates and allowing spectators in stands to restore the vigour and vibrancy of sports competitions at all levels.