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Covid 19 coronavirus: Virus concerns see New Zealand Olympic doctors pull out of Tokyo games

A handful of health specialists selected to provide care to New Zealand athletes at this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo pulled out of the team because of concerns around Covid-19.

Chairman of Sports Medicine New Zealand Stephen Kara said, while the organisation had not been involved, he was personally aware of two or three doctors and some physiotherapists from either the Olympic or Paralympic support teams who had decided not to go.

He said those that had pulled out had done so for a combination of factors including their personal take on Covid-19, the impact on their families and also financial concerns around the extra two weeks they would have to spend in managed isolation on their return.

Kara said it was a difficult decision for every member of the health team heading to Tokyo and one which families had regular conversations about.

“It’s a bit of a hard one, really.”

Each member of the health team had to weigh up any personal concerns with their desire to support athletes who had worked hard for five years to get there and their belief they deserved proper care.

He said the decision to pull out was not for lack of information because those in charge of the medical teams for both events had been very proactive in keeping the team updated on developments and precautions.

New Zealand Olympic Committee communications director confirmed some members of the 35-strong Olympic health team had decided they could no longer go but did not believe Covid concerns were a factor.

“Support teams for health, media, operations, athlete support and preparation and recovery were appointed in 2019 for a four-week Olympic Games commitment in 2020,” she said.

“The year-long postponement combined with the added two weeks in MIQ has meant joining the New Zealand Team to Tokyo is no longer a possibility for some. Work and family life has changed and this is the case with the changes to the health team.

“We have successfully replaced those that were no longer able to join us and we are very pleased to have a highly qualified Health Team in place for Tokyo.”

But the decision to go ahead with the Olympic Games in July is not without controversy and one of New Zealand’s top epidemiologists has warned it will kill people.

Otago University professor Michael Baker said athletes from poorer nations may have been vaccinated against Covid-19 at the expense of the most vulnerable.

“For a country like New Zealand, we can have big sporting events with relative safety and we can afford to vaccinate our healthcare workers, it’s not taking vaccinations away from people who would otherwise die from this pandemic, but in much of the rest of the world that is not the case,” he said.

“If you are vaccinating athletes and sporting teams to go overseas that vaccine is not available to protect vulnerable older people it will results in deaths. There is no question about it.

“Staging the Olympics will kill people, so I guess the IOC has decided that is an acceptable price to pay but that’s the wrong decision for obvious reasons.”

Baker said the pandemic was getting worse rather than better, as evidenced in Japan where they are battling a fourth wave of infection which they were “barely managing”.

He urged the International Olympic Committee to follow the lead of cricket’s IPL and postpone the event again.

On May 5, 4068 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Japan which had a seven-day average of 5318 following a spike on April 29 in which 7914 new cases were recorded.

But despite that BMX competitor and member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission Sarah Walker said she understood Baker’s concerns but believed the risk was worth taking.

“Over 70 per cent of athletes only go to one Olympic Games … so for many athletes this is the only chance in their lifetime that they will get to compete at the Olympics, so let’s make it happen.”

– Additional reporting RNZ

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