U.S. Athletes Will Be Required to Get COVID-19 Vaccines to Compete at the Winter Olympics

All Team USA athletes and staff will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to compete at the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing next year. The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) announced the vaccine mandate on Wednesday in a letter from CEO Sarah Hirshland obtained by Reuters

The mandate will take effect in stages, beginning with anyone who wants to enter USOPC facilities or events. “Effective November 1, 2021, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee will require all USOPC staff, athletes, and those utilizing USOPC facilities—including the training centers—to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Hirshland wrote. 

Next, the COVID-19 vaccine requirement “will also apply to our full Team USA delegation at future Olympic and Paralympic Games,” beginning with the upcoming Winter Games, which kick off in February 2022. All athletes hoping to compete in Beijing must submit proof of vaccination by December 1, 2021, according to the USOPC website. Additionally, vaccine booster shots “may be required in the future.” 

Athletes will have the ability to apply for an exemption “for a legitimate medical reason or because of a sincerely held religious belief,” according to a USOPC document on the vaccine mandate. Those exemption requests will be reviewed by an independent third party on a case-by-case basis. Unvaccinated athletes will have to follow extra safety protocols, such as undergoing frequent COVID-19 testing. 

The intention of the mandate is to prioritize the “health and well-being of our Olympic and Paralympic community,” the USOPC says. “This step will increase our ability to create a safe and productive environment for Team USA athletes and staff, and allow us to restore consistency in planning, preparation, and optimal service to athletes.” As with the Tokyo Games, each country’s team will decide its own vaccine requirements for Beijing, given that the International Olympic Committee has not announced one.

The USOPC’s decision comes a few weeks after the close of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. While there were a number of COVID-19 safety protocols in place (including a ban on all spectators and athletes’ family members) and vaccination was highly encouraged, it was not required. The USOPC said that about 83% of Team USA athletes were vaccinated, meaning there were about 100 unvaccinated U.S. athletes in Tokyo. And a number of athletes had to bow out of the Games after testing positive for COVID-19, including tennis player Cori “Coco” Gauff, gymnast Kara Eaker, and volleyball player Taylor Crabb. (Both Eaker and Crabb said they were vaccinated and asymptomatic.) There were at least 430 total cases in the Olympic bubble, according to Reuters

Since the close of the Games, vaccine requirements have gone from the exception to the norm in the U.S. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late August, spurring a wave of vaccine mandates from private and public institutions. Earlier this month the Biden administration announced it was mandating vaccine requirements be implemented at all companies with more than 100 employees. 

Meanwhile, as we near closer to the first Winter Olympics and Paralympics to be held in the pandemic era, the spread of the virus continues and new variants may continue to emerge, as the USOPC notes. Hirshland said in her letter that months ago she was hopeful that the committee would be able to lift their COVID-19 restrictions by the close of the Tokyo Games, per Reuters. But the reality now, she wrote, is that the pandemic is “far from over.”

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