A A few years ago I was in India on a cricket tour of England and watched myself training the net. It was a sweltering day at Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in Delhi, and to the watching media the only available shade was next to a small marquee – actually just a glorified tent – that had been put up for the batsmen to bolster up and the bowlers to take a breather. As I crouched right there, I became aware of the surreal conversation that was taking place on the other side of the screen.
“Have you heard from Julian Assange?” One of the English players asked his teammates. “It’s a crazy story. I was up until about 4 a.m. reading about it. He’s the Wikileaks hacker who released all these secrets about the US government and all of its wars and such. And so the US government basically rape him and tried to extradite him to Sweden. It’s crazy.”
Of course, there were important elements in the player’s sprawling account owed, say, to the internet’s bizarre alternate truths rather than official records. Above all, I understood how susceptible an athlete must be to wormholes like this: all those long nights in strange hotel rooms with nothing but a telephone, WiFi connection and a frenzied, unsatisfied curiosity.
Indeed, if you were a sinister conspirator looking for your next brand, you could do much worse than the professional athlete: a highly impressive young person with a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, hours of free time, and relatively little contact with mainstream society. It is worth keeping this thought in mind when considering a recent sporting phenomenon: the silent emergence of the vaccine skeptic.
Last week, the world’s number 3 tennis player Stefanos Tsitsipas was interviewed about his stance on vaccines during the Western & Southern Open. “For me the vaccine hasn’t been tested well enough, it’s new, it has some side effects,” he replied. “I just don’t see any reason that anyone in my age group should be vaccinated. I think the concept was [for the vaccine] given to the elderly. For us young people, I think it’s good to pass the virus on because we will build immunity. “
Henry Slade has said that he will not accept the vaccine because he believes you cannot trust him. Photo: Action Foto Sport / NurPhot / Shutterstock
Tsitsipas’ remarks have been severely reprimanded by the Greek government, and yet he is far from alone in his hesitation. The number one in the world, Novak Djokovic, has often spoken out against a vaccination despite being infected with the coronavirus last summer. The top 10 players Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka both expressed skepticism at the beginning of the year: Svitolina because her friends warned them about it, Sabalenka because “they did it really quickly, not enough time to make a good one” . A coach recently told Sports Illustrated that he estimates that only about 30% of players have been vaccinated.
In this country, where the vaccination campaign is a complete success, there is less popular skepticism. But it’s still out there. In May, the Exeter Chiefs Center told Henry Slade that he would not accept the vaccine because “I don’t think you can trust him”. Last month, Everton midfielder Fabian Delph shared an anti-vaccine Instagram post. And we should probably be realistic: given the public’s sensitivity to the subject, what we’re seeing is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.
Despite intermittent Covid-19 outbreaks, vaccination coverage in English football remains patchy. Newcastle manager Steve Bruce said last week that many of his players had turned down the vaccine on the grounds of “conspiracy theories”. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has announced that some of his Manchester United sides are still unvaccinated. And anecdotal evidence suggests that vaccine uptake remains a major problem in many clubs.
Much of the research on the anti-Vaxx movement has focused on political withdrawal, the fragile relationship of trust between many states and their citizens. In the popular imagination, the prototypical Western anti-Vaxxer is some sort of madman, a village idiot, maybe even a political extremist. But the vaccine skeptics of professional sport remind us that radicalization and myth transcend the boundaries of privilege and socio-economy.
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They feel that part of the gap is generational: in most countries, vaccination reluctance is more common among young people. But there are also sport-specific problems here. Being a professional athlete often means cultivating a strangely intense, devoted relationship with your own body. Often it requires an irrational, almost superhuman belief in one’s own physical resilience. As a result, many athletes are both obsessed with what they put in their bodies and voracious in their quest to improve and maintain it, a cocktail that takes many down the rabbit hole of pseudomedicine and disinformation. “I feel like you have to be the boss of your body and I’ve heard that you can get infected with one of the vaccines,” Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt said earlier this year, before later stepping down.
How the authorities deal with the vaccination scrubbing is of course a completely different question. So far, only a few sports organizations have opted for mandatory vaccination and prefer a mixture of incentives, explanations and polite encouragement. No doubt the prospect of expulsion from competition or expatriation would encourage many unvaccinated athletes to do so, at least for their own careers. But if the skepticism persists in the longer term, the sport needs to be active to develop its own anti-anti-Vaxx message. After all, the only cure for a lie is the truth.