While the world watched as Australian officials detained world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic for violating COVID-19 immunisation guidelines, Thiago Monteiro continued his preparation for the Australian Open.
The Brazilian, ranked 89th, could not afford to be refused a spot in the event, owing to the fact that he will earn $100,000 in prize money just for showing up to his first round match.
Monteiro didn’t obtain his vaccinations before the competition because of the tight immunisation policy.
“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.
According to the men’s governing organisation, the Association of Tennis Professionals, almost 95 percent of the top 100 male tennis players and 80 percent of male players overall have been double jabbed (ATP).
However, since the Australian Open revealed its required vaccine policy in October 2021, this has changed. Prior to that declaration, the proportion of male players who had been vaccinated was substantially lower, at 65 percent.
According to the most recent statistics released by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), over 80% of female tennis players have been double-vaccinated. The uptake among the top 100 female players was 85 percent as of January 6, 2022.
Other sports, such as basketball, golf, and football, have seen cases comparable to Djokovic’s.
But why are some great athletes, who are among the world’s healthiest individuals, so averse to getting the vaccine?
It’s a question Monteiro himself finds difficult to answer.
While he refuses to name colleagues who are dragging their feet, he concedes that hearing professional athletes doubt scientific advice is perplexing.
The first step in understanding this hesitancy, according to Dr. Darren Briton, a sports psychologist at Solent University in the United Kingdom, is to look at how athletes are far more concerned about their bodies than the rest 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 or 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 stated that he was “opposed to the vaccination.”
Experts like Britton feel that if a high-profile figure like Djokovic publicly questions the vaccine, the situation will be aggravated.
In the United States, a similar issue emerged in the National Football League (NFL). Although the NFL claims that over 90% of its players are double-vaccinated, NFL star Aaron Rodgers has controversially advocated homoeopathy as an alternate type of COVID-19 vaccination.
He was also accused of lying to the public about his vaccination status.
Vaccine reluctance also appears to exist in English football, with many games postponed owing to COVID-19 outbreaks.
In the United Kingdom, a study conducted by the Football League of England, the governing body of the lower divisions, found in late December that a quarter of the players in the league’s 72 professional teams “do not intend to get a vaccine.”
In the Premier League, the premier flight in the United Kingdom, 23% of players had not been doubly jabbed or had just received the first dose.
“We tend to think of athletes as super-humans, but they are as susceptible to wrong information or conspiracy theories as any of us,” says Dr. Gavin Weedon, Senior Lecturer in Sport, Health, and the Body at Nottingham Trent University.
Weedon, who is the director of a new research programme focusing on vaccination apprehension among athletes, argues that they should not be singled out in the immunisation discussion.
“We would still have widespread vaccine hesitancy in the world even if Novak Djokovic had said nothing about it,” he notes.
However, the expert thinks that high-profile opposition to the vaccine is counterproductive to the government’s efforts to increase immunisation 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.”