Most U.S. Olympians will get COVID-19 vaccines. The trickier question: When?

A vast majority of American athletes competing in the Olympics this summer will be vaccinated by the time they go to Tokyo — if, that is, a recent sampling of two dozen Team USA members is representative of the broader athlete pool.

Every Olympian or Olympic hopeful who was asked about COVID-19 vaccines at a media event on Wednesday said they either had been vaccinated or plan to get vaccinated before the Games begin in July. A few indicated that most or all of their teammates would get vaccinated as well.

“Once it's my time, I would love to be vaccinated, and I think it's good for athletes to become advocates for that,” Simone Biles, the face of the Tokyo Olympics, told reporters.

“As soon as I'm eligible, I am definitely going to be vaccinated,” six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix said. “I'm looking forward to when it's my turn.”

For months, Olympic organizations wondered whether doses would become available to athletes in time for the Games. And that question still applies in many countries around the world. But in the United States, distribution has accelerated rapidly. President Joe Biden said this week that all adults will be eligible by April 19. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, along with sport-specific governing bodies, has been helping athletes navigate complex sign-up processes. But none will have to “jump the line” for vaccines. Many athletes are already eligible in their respective cities and states.

A few of the athletes who were asked about vaccination on Wednesday said they’d been hesitant at various points over the past year. “In the beginning, I wasn’t gonna get it,” rugby player Naya Tapper said. And fellow rugby star Carlin Isles: “I definitely had my doubts.” His teammate, Perry Baker, did too.

But they and others have had team meetings. Officials have educated them, both individually and in group settings, on vaccine safety and benefits.

The trickier question, for some Olympians, isn’t whether to get the shot; it’s when.

A woman walks by signage to promote the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Monday, April 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
A woman walks by signage to promote the Olympic Games in Tokyo on April 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Working around side effects

Isles admitted that he’s “a little worried about the side effects” of COVID vaccines. Those side effects, as the CDC says, “are normal signs that your body is building protection.” Any tiredness or muscle pain often appears after the second dose, and "should go away within a few days," per the CDC. But for an Olympian with a competition within that window, fatigue or muscle pain could be problematic. In some sports, even a stiff arm could be inhibitive.

That’s why Jonathan Finnoff, the USOPC’s chief medical officer, has recommended that athletes “not have their second dose of vaccine within a week of a significant event,” he said Thursday.

Some Olympians, therefore, have been careful in scheduling their doses. Tapper, the rugby player, spoke with some teammates who’d been vaccinated and felt “kind of groggy for the next 24 hours.” So she found an appointment next week before a day without an intense training session on her calendar, “just in case I don’t feel too well for the next couple of days.”

Jacob Schrom, a para powerlifter, opted to wait until after a recent World Cup event, “just in case I had any minor side effects,” he said. “I didn't want that to affect my training and buildup to the competition. I'll get [my first dose] here on Saturday.”

Ginny Thrasher, a 2016 gold medalist in shooting, said that she “definitely tried to schedule it so if there were side effects of the second dose, it would not knock me out for some vital competition days.”

Many athletes, though, aren’t worried. “I'm not too concerned about anything training-wise,” Felix said.

Most are instead focused on the upside of vaccines, and on getting their second dose at least a few weeks before the Olympic trials — to minimize risk that the virus could bar them from the Games.

Finoff’s broader guidance to Team USA, based on strong evidence that vaccine protection lasts at least several months, is: “It's more important for you to get vaccinated as soon as possible. ... The last thing you want to do is get sick before or during the Games.”

The ultimate vaccine incentive

Olympic organizers won’t mandate vaccination. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said they won’t even track it. And she acknowledged last month: “I absolutely expect that there will be Team USA athletes who do not choose to take a vaccine. And we will respect that right.”

“That said,” she continued, “we expect the vast majority of athletes will elect to take the vaccine.” The USOPC has recommended and encouraged that they do so.

Many athletes have the ultimate incentive awaiting them in Tokyo. If they test positive at the Olympics, they wouldn’t be able to compete. They’d lose the moment they’ve trained and waited five years for.

“I wouldn't want them to tell me I can't play, after all these years of hard work,” Isles, the rugby star, said.

And it isn’t just about him. It’s about all his teammates and potential close contacts. “If one person gets COVID, then it could mess up our team, and everybody might not be able to participate,” he pointed out.

Kara Kohler, a rower, is another Olympian who admitted to hesitancy. “I usually don't like to get yearly flu shots and stuff,” she said. “But it seems like I'll be getting this one, just because I don't want to take the risk of getting coronavirus.” Her team had a big outbreak last spring. “Since I need my body so heavily everyday,” Kohler continued, “I don't want to risk getting sick and having respiratory issues and not being able to race.”

Several Olympians also referenced the bigger picture. “It's not just for me, it's for everyone,” said Yul Moldauer, a gymnast who’s scheduled to receive his first dose on Monday. “It's for all the athletes, it's for everyone that's going through this process. … I knew that if I got the shot, it wouldn't just keep me safe, but everyone else around me.”

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