At some point in the undetermined future, we will no longer use the word bubble to describe a sporting event other than those giant white tarps they use to build an indoor turf facility. At some point, athletes will come and go from games and tournaments as they always have – in luxury automobiles wearing custom Armani suits. Or on a bus eating a box dinner, depending on what sport we’re talking about. But that moment is not now, regardless of what the Governor of Texas says. For the time being, the only way to safely bring large groups of athletes together, especially for multi-team or large individual tournaments, is to use some combination of testing, quarantine, and largely keeping everyone involved under one roof until the entire thing is over. In other words, a sports bubble.
Of course, there is an expectation that this will change, soon we all hope. And the thing that seems the most likely to get us there, of course, is the vaccine. The miracle serum that we hope marks the end of the pandemic and the end of this post-apocalyptic movie. In particular, we hope and assume that once people are vaccinated, they can gather together, without masks, and do what they used to do all the way back in February of 2020. Included in that would be large scaled sporting events, say an indoor track meet, or a hockey tournament, or the Olympics. Imagine if every athlete at the Olympics was vaccinated and Covid free, imagine the freedom in producing a sporting event like that, another one of the things that only sounds surprising because it does seem so surprising. This idea, a fully vaccinated Olympics, is both tantalizingly close yet realistically miles away, at least for an event schedule for this summer that will bring young athletes from across the world to Tokyo for a couple of weeks. Given the challenges of vaccine distribution in the US, much less the rest of the world who’ve barely begun to see supply, there’s essentially no way every Olympic athlete – thousands of people – could qualify for and get the shot, or two, before the Olympic flame is lit.
That is, assuming everyone follows the rules, which obviously vary by geography and government. In the US at least, very few Olympic athletes would qualify by any state system. Perhaps a few might be essential workers on the side, even fewer might have co-morbidities, but by and large, it’s hard to find a younger, healthier, less qualified group as an aggregate for the vaccine than our Olympic team. Which means the only way to have vaccinated Olympians is to do the unthinkable – to line jump. In other words, jump Olympic athletes up with doctors and seniors and nurses. In some countries, it would mean pushing athletes all the way to the front of the line, and giving otherwise healthy folks a shot in front of people with much higher risk. In other words, we would make Olympic athlete an essential job.
As you can imagine, this proposition has raised some global ire for all the predictable reasons. It’s unfair, it makes deities of athletes, it pushes more worthy folks further back. Some of these have more merit than others. For example, the actual grand impact of 10,000 vaccines in a planet of billions is negligible. Meaning this is an argument about representation and priority, not necessarily public health – other than those in the Olympics and perhaps the citizens of Tokyo. There’s other considerations – like can these athletes serve as role models to a public that hasn’t fully embraced vaccinations, and might a more robust Olympic Games serve as a true public service for a planet that needs some joy. But for most people, this will come down to a basic question of fairness, which seems to be at the crux of almost every conversation these days, Covid or not.
I don’t have absolute opinions on this, although if I had to take a side, I would support vaccinating Olympic athletes before this summer. If you haven’t noticed already by the increasingly uncomfortable and unnecessary vaccine posts on social media, there’s been a whole lot of folks who have stretched the concept of fairness. And vaccinating Olympians has the added benefit of encouraging others to follow suit, something we’ll desperately need across the developing world. And let’s face it, I rather the Games be a celebration of elite athletics than a giant science experiment. I can get that right here in the US. And maybe with a vaccinated games, I can watch something that seems almost impossible. Sports, without a bubble.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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