MARTIN SAMUEL: After bullying its ordinary citizens with unrelenting fervour in the fight against Covid, Australia have given public platform to a man in No-vax Djokovic who appears to work for the other side… they should be ASHAMED
- Anti-vax Novak Djokovic was handed a loophole to play at the Australian Open
- The men’s world No 1 tennis player received a mysterious ‘medical exemption’
- Djokovic has now been allowed to become the poster boy for backward conspiracy theories and alarmist nonsense
- Now on his way, the 34-year-old’s very presence in Australia will be polarising
So now we know how to get around Australia’s vaccination rules. You need to be box office. You need to be rich, famous and privileged.
Oh, and you need to have a valid medical exemption. It’s just this status seems rather easier to come by if you fit one of the aforementioned categories.
The little people cannot so much as peer at one of Melbourne’s 35 outside courts without a jab but Novak Djokovic can walk to the heart of the arena, through the heart of the city, footloose and vaccine-free. After months of sparring, Australia caved.
Novak Djokovic will play at the Australian Open vaccine-free after being granted an exemption
The Serb – and world No 1 tennis player – confirmed he was ‘heading Down Under’ on Tuesday
Djokovic, whose scepticism around Covid prevention and vaccination has already seen him host one super-spreader event, has now been allowed to become the poster boy for backward conspiracy theories and alarmist nonsense.
If he wins the first Grand Slam of 2022 – which is likely as he has already won nine of the last 14 – it will be viewed by his disciples as further evidence that vaccines weaken and resistance creates the strong.
Australia, which has bullied its ordinary citizens with unrelenting fervour, will have given a public platform to a man who, in the fight against Covid, appears to work for the other side. They have made Djokovic’s stance, his views, a cause célèbre. And now they will put him centre stage. They should be ashamed.
Tournament director Craig Tiley will not be, of course, because he never is. In 2018, of all the female tennis players in the world, he chose Maria Sharapova to parade the cup at the opening ceremony.
She was ranked 47th in the world at the time, and her most recent contribution to the competition had been a failed drug test. In 2020, he had Sharapova on official duty again. By then she was ranked 147 and needed a wildcard invitation to play at all.
Tiley might be considered somewhat in thrall to celebrity, or maybe he is just a man trying to plug a hole. The Australian Open lost £56million last year, and burned through reserves of £45m doing so. There is a whiff of desperation around the welcome now being afforded Djokovic.
He is not alone, of course. Other players have also received medical exemptions. But as the world’s finest tennis player Djokovic’s story travels further. It hardly helps, then, that the nature of his specific exempt circumstances remain a mystery.
The terms around exemptions are very precise. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open quarter-finalist in 2018 and 2020, has pulled out of the competition because he does not want to fulfil the vaccine requirements and does not meet the exemption criteria.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley (right) might be considered somewhat in thrall to celebrity – or maybe he is just a man trying to plug a hole by opening arms to Djokovic
It is unhelpful that with his refusal to explain why he is a special case, Djokovic gives the impression of bucking the system. After all, we know about Chris Froome’s asthma, or that Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal have in the past utilised therapeutic use exemptions to be treated with medicine that would otherwise be banned.
There are two expert panels who considered Djokovic’s case but neither is empowered to conduct a medical examination. Procedurally, they would have had to take submissions from doctors in his native Serbia, where the player is understandably a national hero.
Like any elite athlete, Djokovic will employ a number of personal, private, physicians. He does not have to be written off by a random GP. His doctor will be an employee.
Djokovic gives the impression of bucking the system as he refuses to detail his exemption
Now on his way to Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s very presence in Australia will be polarising
Now on his way, Djokovic’s very presence in Australia will be polarising.
While some are expecting him to receive a hostile reception from Melburnians who have complied with strict Covid regulations, equally he will be seen as the standard-bearer for those who oppose compulsory vaccination and other curbs on individual liberty.
He does not have to win, lose, or inadvertently smack a ball into a line judge. His very presence in the city will be divisive.
Already, there are aspersions from within the sport. ‘I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,’ mused Jamie Murray.
Alex de Minaur, world No 15 last summer and born in Sydney, added: ‘I just think it’s very interesting. That’s all I’m going to say. It is what it is.’
If Djokovic wins in Melbourne it will be celebrated with even greater fervour by his supporters
Last week, UEFA said it would switch venues for Champions League games scheduled to be played in France and Italy to skirt compulsory vaccination rules.
It means clubs with unvaccinated players will not have to field weakened teams if drawn to play in those countries.
It seems sport’s organisers will do anything to avoid asking its marquee names to face up to a wider social responsibility.
And if Djokovic wins in Melbourne it will be celebrated with even greater fervour by his supporters. Not just another Slam, more a victory over reason.
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