Covid-19 vaccine: Why are some athletes so reluctant to get the jab?

While people around the globe followed the decision by Australian authorities to detain world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic over Covid-19 vaccination rules, Thiago Monteiro simply carried on with this training for the Australian Open.

Ranked number 89, the Brazilian could not really risk being denied a place in the tournament, mainly because he will earn $100,000 in prize money just by showing up to his first round match.

But it wasn’t the strict vaccination policy that led Monteiro to get his jabs ahead of the competition.

“My decision to get vaccinated had nothing to do with the Australian Open. It was a matter of protecting myself and others,” Monteiro tells the BBC.

“But I know that a lot of people around the world are looking at us. If we really have the power to influence them, let’s make sure it’s in a good way.”

High profile dissent

Like Monteiro, over 95% of the top 100 male tennis players and 80% of male players overall have been double jabbed, according to the men’s ruling body, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

But this is since the Australian Open announced its mandatory vaccination policy back in October 2021. Before that announcement the proportion of male vaccinated players was much lower at 65%.

The most recent figures issued by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) reveal that over 80% of female players have been double-vaccinated. As of 6 January 2022, the uptake among the top 100 women players was 85%.


Brazilian number 1 male tennis player Thiago Monteiro

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Cases similar to Djokovic’s have been observed in other sports, including basketball, golf and football.

But why are some elite athletes, some of the world’s most health-conscious people, so reluctant to get the jab?

It is a question that Monteiro himself struggles to answer.

While refusing to name colleagues who were dragging their heels, he admits that it is quite baffling to hear professional athletes question scientific advice.

“I really don’t know why this is happening, but I suspect it is a consequence of all the disinformation going around,” he muses.

Dr Darren Briton, a sports psychologist at Solent University, in the UK, says that the first step to understand this hesitancy is to examine how athletes tend to be much more worried about their bodies than most of us.

“For athletes, their bodies are their most precious commodity,” Britton explains.

“Some of them are likely to be hesitant towards taking a vaccine if they haven’t been provided with enough information of if they have been misinformed.”

“There were initial worries, for instance, if the jab could affect their performance or even show up in anti-doping tests,” he adds.

Last year Djokovic said he was “opposed to the vaccination”.

Experts like Britton believe the situation is amplified if a high-profile name like Djokovic publicly question the vaccine.


Aaron Rodgers walking off the pitch

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A similar situation arose in the National Football League (NFL) in the US. The NFL said over 90% of its players are double-vaccinated but NFL star Aaron Rodgers, controversially endorsed homeopathy as an alternative form of immunisation against Covid-19.

He was also accused of misleading the public about being vaccinated.

And there appears to be vaccine hesitancy in English football, with multiple games being postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

In the UK, a survey carried out by the England’s Football League, the ruling body of the lower divisions, revealed in late December that a quarter of players in its 72 professional teams “do not intend to get a vaccine”.

In the Premier League, the top division in the UK, 23% players were not double jabbed or had taken the first dose.

‘Athletes also susceptible to conspiracy theories’

“We tend to think of athletes as super-humans, but they are as susceptible to wrong information or conspiracy theories as any of us,” explains Dr Gavin Weedon, Senior Lecturer in Sport, Health and the Body at Nottingham Trent University.

Weedon, who is the coordinator of a new programme of studies that will focus specifically on vaccine hesitancy among athletes, warns that they should not be singled out in the immunisation debate.

“We would still have widespread vaccine hesitancy in the world even if Novak Djokovic had said nothing about it,” he observes.

But the expert agrees that high-profile dissent against the vaccine is not helpful to the authorities’ efforts to drive up vaccination rates.

“Whether it’s his intention or not, Djokovic became a poster boy for vaccine scepticism because of his status and possibly because of his expressions and views.”


Anti-vaccine placard

Image source, Getty Images

While vaccine mandates by health authorities, sport bodies and even teams have helped drive uptake among athletes, Darren Britton warns that it is a solution that can also hamper efforts to have athletes as “ambassadors of the jab”.

“The more you try to make something mandatory, the more people will be likely to resist it,” says Britton.

“If you want athletes to set the example you really need to try to educate them.”

Not getting vaccinated was never an option for Thiago Monteiro.

As well having a mum with fragile health, he was shocked by the high number of Covid-related deaths in his native Brazil (over 600,000).

But, without specifically naming Djokovic, the Brazilian number one says players should reflect about the repercussion of their actions.

“People can have their opinions about the vaccine, even though it has been more than proven that it saves lives.”

“But I know that a lot of people around the world are looking at us. If we really have the power to influence them, let’s make sure it’s in a good way.”

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