Evan Dunfee is a 2016 Canadian Olympian and 50K racewalking bronze medalist. Here, he responds to Dick Pound's comment that Olympians should get priority access to the COVID-19 vaccines prior to the 2021 Tokyo Games.
Dick Pound’s recent comments suggesting that athletes jumping the queue for the vaccine would be the most realistic way for the Olympics to go ahead have been met with near-unanimous condemnation in Canada by athletes and fans. I, along with teammates who have spoken out publicly, believe we should wait our turn in line while frontline and essential workers, as well as all other vulnerable groups, get their vaccines first.
Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, told Sky News last week, “to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level — I don't think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that.” In light of Pound’s comments, the Canadian Olympic Committee countered with what many athletes and fans undoubtedly think is the right idea: Olympic athletes will take their place in line and not receive any special treatment.
The fact that this conversation has not blown up into a huge debate shows that there is only one legitimate take in this argument, and that people are siding with the COC rather than with an old guy with an unusual name who thinks he has his finger on the pulse of public opinion. For what it's worth, I'm perfectly content to take my place in line. And beyond the sake of fairness, I think there is another important reason why athletes should not jump the vaccine queue.
That reason has to do with the value of an Olympian. I, as an elite athlete representing Canada, am carded. That means I get about $28,000 a year from the federal government to support my training. That money isn’t a hand out, as I am not a charity. With that money comes an expectation to create value for my country — a return on investment, if you will. In athletics we have roughly 50 athletes carded at the senior level. A few of us might bring value to society (as it is society who pays us) by running fast or jumping high and providing entertainment. The rest of us, not least of which me — the guy who walks fast for hours — may perform well and ignite national pride but our main value comes away from the field of play.
Dick Pound did say something I agree with: athletes are important role models. My value is in what I do when I come home from the Olympics, how I behave and engage within my community. My value is in getting people active. My value is in talking to tens of thousands of school kids about what it means to set big goals, to work really hard, and to define yourself not by whether you win or lose but by how much progress you make along the way. My value is in being a role model.
That complete aforementioned quote from Pound reads, “Athletes are important role models, and by taking the vaccine they can send a powerful message that vaccination is not only about personal health, but also about solidarity and consideration for the well-being of others in their communities." Yes, Olympic athletes have the platform to play an important role in fostering strong communities — but that only works when we give back to those communities, and not take from them.
The notion that athletes jumping the queue sends a powerful message about the consideration of our community, has to be short-listed for an award of absurdly bad takes (maybe call it a Dicky). This action would pit us squarely against our communities, and would leave us to reckon with the possibility that our getting vaccinated to galavant off to Tokyo and play games may have prevented someone in greater need of immunization. We would lose the belief our communities have in us, costing us our ability to be role models, and thus decimating our value.
Furthermore, the Tokyo Games are thought by some to be an important mark of perseverance, a celebration of a return to normal. But if the only way this can happen is with all athletes being vaccinated before the rest of society, we have nothing to celebrate. If our communities continue to struggle back home, I can’t envision any way in which we, the athletes, could return home from such a Games and expect to still be seen as role models.
Selfishly, I hope the Games happen safely this summer. I’ve been training for moments like this one since I was 10 years old. But the health and safety of my community comes first. That means frontline and essential workers and all other vulnerable groups have to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, while I wait my turn in line. If that means the Olympics cannot happen this summer, then so be it. I will continue to try my best to lift my community up and to be valuable.
And until then, I am hopeful we don't get to test Pound's theory that, if we skip the line, "there would be no public outcry."