How sport has been gripped by chaos after failing to control vaccine issue

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  • Novak Djokovic
    Novak Djokovic
    Serbian tennis player
  • Joshua Kimmich
    Joshua Kimmich
    German association football player
How sport has been gripped by chaos after failing to control vaccine issue
How sport has been gripped by chaos after failing to control vaccine issue

British sport is braced for a raft of Covid-related travel issues similar to that experienced by Novak Djokovic in Australia.

Unvaccinated athletes in football, rugby and cycling are all expected to run into issues this spring as they attempt to compete in countries such as France, Italy and Germany, where vaccination is either mandatory or onerous quarantine restrictions apply to the unvaccinated.

Djokovic, the Serbian world tennis No 1 who is one of sport’s highest-profile unvaccinated athletes, is stuck in a Melbourne hotel after border officials rejected his visa application when he arrived to compete in the Australian Open.

Djokovic’s lawyers have launched an appeal, but the Serb’s travails have become a lightning rod for the anti-vaccine community, with the player’s parents accusing the Australian government of making him a “political scapegoat”.

But a number of British sportsmen and women could face similar issues in the coming weeks and months as European countries tighten their borders to combat the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

Football and rugby are likely to be the most affected sports, with the knockout stages of the Champions League and Europa League starting next month and rugby’s European Champions Cup starting up again next weekend.

Liverpool have been drawn against Inter Milan and Chelsea against Lille in the last 16 of the Champions League, while Rangers travel to Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League round of 32.

All three fixtures could pose a problem for unvaccinated players, although Liverpool are thought to have 100 per cent of their players vaccinated.

Athletes travelling to Italy currently have to show proof of one jab to enter the country or spend five days in quarantine. In France the regulations are even tighter, with French athletes required to be double-jabbed from Jan 15.

The German government is considering imposing the same restrictions on athletes from next month after a national outcry over unvaccinated Bundesliga players such as Joshua Kimmich and Serge Gnabry, both of whom were docked wages by Bayern Munich last autumn after they admitted to being unvaccinated. Kimmich and Gnabry were in a tiny minority of players, with the Bundesliga reporting a 94 per cent vaccination take-up last month. The Premier League, by contrast, admitted last month that 16 per cent of its players – nearly 100 individuals – were yet to have their first jab.

In rugby’s Premiership, the vaccination take-up is a lot higher, with just four per cent – around 20 players – remaining unvaccinated according to Premiership Rugby.

One of the most high profile is thought to be Exeter’s England international Henry Slade, who told Telegraph Sport in an interview last year that he did “not fancy the vaccine at all” as he did not feel he could trust it due to his diabetes and having had adverse reactions to past vaccinations.

Exeter declined to comment on Thursday, but with the club travelling to Montpellier later this month for a Champions Cup tie, and with England due to travel to Paris for the final round of Six Nations fixtures in March, Slade could face travel issues should his stance have remained unchanged. French authorities have reportedly imposed strict bubble protocols on unvaccinated athletes from overseas, which involves limits on their movements between hotels, shuttle buses and stadiums, with the possibility of extending the mandatory vaccination requirement for all French athletes to those from abroad if the omicron wave continues to ravage the nation.

In professional cycling, with riders largely living and competing on the continent, vaccine take-up has been almost complete. Ineos Grenadiers confirmed on Thursday that 100 per cent of their riders had the vaccine. But there are likely to be a few who remain unvaccinated at other teams, especially with anecdotal reports last year that riders struggled physically after vaccinations.

The question of whether sports should get tougher on their athletes and require them to be vaccinated has become one of the big talking points of the winter. In the NBA, Kyrie Irving was initially barred from playing for the Brooklyn Nets this season after refusing to be vaccinated, although the team have since relented, while in the NFL Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was fined for flouting Covid-19 protocols.

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp suggested that he would think twice about signing an unvaccinated player. “If a player is not vaccinated, he is a constant threat for all of us,” Klopp said. “He doesn’t want to be a threat. It is not that he thinks, ‘I don’t care about the others’. But he is [a threat]. He has to change in a different dressing room, he has to eat in a different dining room, he has to sit in a different bus, he has to drive in a different car: from an organisational point of view, it gets really messy.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to comment on Thursday on specific cases but reissued a call for everyone, including sportsmen, to have Covid vaccinations. Asked about concerns sportsmen were not getting jabs, the spokesman said: “We absolutely think that everyone should get vaccinated and get boosted, regardless of profession.”

Pushed further on the Djokovic developments, the spokesman declined to comment directly but noted UK government scientists have addressed concerns from professional sportsmen.

He added: “We do absolutely want to see everyone get vaccinated. We know from a raft of evidence that it is completely safe regardless of your profession and that everyone should come forward, both to benefit themselves and to benefit others.”

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