The detention of Serbian tennis champion and world no 1 Novak Djokovic, in Australia after he failed to meet the criteria for an exemption to an entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 has divided both fans and the public. This week, an Australian court rejected Djokovic’s visa cancellation and ordered his release from a four-day detention at a hotel. Djokovic’s lawyers had argued that the star had tested positive for COVID-19 last month and had recovered, which was the grounds for him to seek medical exemption from being vaccinated prior to the Australian Open which kicks off on Jan 17. On Wednesday, Djokovic admitted that he had met a journalist soon after testing positive for COVID, and that there were inadvertent mistakes on his immigration forms.
Djokovic is not alone in his misadventure involving vaccination certificates. A Czech player Renata Voracova had also been detained on account of a vaccine dispute at the same hotel as Djokovic. Having contracted COVID just before Christmas, Voracova said she did not find the time to get inoculated before flying for the tournament. These developments must be seen in the light of how Australia enforced some of the strictest lockdowns over the past two years to control the surge of COVID. Having breached the one million mark in total COVID cases on Monday, the country’s healthcare system is under pressure, as hospitalisations are on the rise.
The Serbian Grand Slam champ has previously fallen into the crosshairs of law enforcement authorities on account of COVID violations. In June 2020, Djokovic, a vocal vaccine-skeptic had helmed the Adria Tour, a charity tennis event. During these matches, he came under fire for not mandating players to follow social distancing. The attendees were also spotted hugging, and huddling together, posing for photos and indulging themselves with parties, at a time when COVID was raging across the world. Several players including Djokovic had tested positive during the games, and it invited international outcry.
The irresponsibility of players is one factor. Even the decisions of sporting bodies have been mired in uncertainty as far as conducting matches is concerned. A case in point is the BCCI. Despite the second wave picking up pace in India during the months of April and May 2021, the BCCI had opted to schedule the IPL tournament in the country. Only after several players and crew tested positive for the coronavirus did the BCCI suspend the games indefinitely. It may be unfair to place the onus of the blame on sporting bodies as there are billions in ad revenue riding on such events, which translates into incomes for thousands of stakeholders, operators and staffers involved.
A similar calamity is being witnessed in the world of European football. German football club Bayern Munich has reported several new cases of COVID-19 among key players, which has cast doubts on the team’s participation in the Bundesliga games. Similarly, the English Premier League reported as many as 90 COVID cases within players and crew members of the teams. But it is still going ahead with its plans for in person attendance at the stadiums, with NHS-provided vaccine passports in hand.
The world of sports, like that of cultural events such as cinema, theatre and concerts is caught between a rock and a hard place. Having been branded as desirable, in the Vital/Essential/Desirable chart, these disciplines draw the shortest draw when it comes to conducting their business during a pandemic.
If Djokovic is allowed to participate in the tournament, it might appear to be a setback of sorts for the Australian government, which has employed an iron hand in containment measures. If it doesn’t, then the argument that such rules are only selectively applicable will not hold any water. What is undeniable is how this microbial malady has blurred the lines between right and wrong — leaving no easy answers in sight.