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Comment: The priority vaccination of UAE Team Emirates riders has left me feeling uneasy

8 Jan 2021

Words: Joe Robinson

Current Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar looks down the lens of the camera. His eyes suggest a smile but the mask covering his mouth hides his expression.

His left sleeve rolled up, a health care practitioner sticks a needle into his upper left arm. It's a rare moment in which a needle represents good in our world of cycling. The current Tour champion is receiving his vaccination against Covid-19.

In potentially as little as a few weeks, the invisible killer that has brought the world to a standstill and killed millions over the last 12 months will be no match for Pogacar, 26 of his UAE Team Emirates teammates and 32 of the team’s staff members thanks to the Sinopharm CNBG vaccine, developed in China.

‘As a UAE team we are enormously proud of the efforts the nation and its leadership has taken at every level to both combat the impact the of the Covid-19 pandemic and to be a leader in the efforts to bring life back to normal,’ said team principal Mauro Gianetti on receiving the vaccine.

‘The whole team is delighted to have been given the opportunity to protect ourselves and others through taking the vaccine and we would like to congratulate the UAE and all partners of this programme for their incredible work to make this happen.’

This should have represented a moment of elation, hope and progress for the world and for the sport of cycling. But did it?

Well, every needle jabbed into an arm around the world theoretically guides us a step closer to normality. With every dose of antidote, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter.

For the UAE, it will feel like a relief. In cycling terms, it was the Emirati state that witnessed one of the first major outbreaks of the virus back in February last year at the UAE Tour. The virus was at that point something of an unknown quantity and the incident saw teams, race officials and journalists quarantining in their hotels.

The likes of Groupama-FDJ and Cofidis spent weeks cooped up in small hotel rooms while UAE Team Emirates's Fernando Gaviria spent a month in hospital battling the virus. The team’s osteopath Dario Marini spent nine days in intensive care.

Every vaccine that was stuck into a rider’s arm on Thursday moves us a step further away from the situation of 2020 repeating itself in 2021.

And with every professional cyclist vaccinated, it takes us nearer to a racing calendar that won't be derailed by coronavirus outbreaks or bubble breaches. We can look forward to the return of events like Paris-Roubaix, a race that was sacrificed in 2020 in the name of public health.

Yet the sight of 22-year-old Pogacar being vaccinated against this deadly virus still makes me feel uneasy. And not because he should not be protected – in fact, it should be our number one priority that everyone is as soon as possible.

It’s just that as Pogacar received his vaccination at the decree of the UAE Ministry of Health & Prevention, he joined just 8% of the United Arab Emirates's population in being protected from the virus. His was one of an initial 826,000 doses – as of 6th January – handed out to a population of 10 million, to a non-national whose only connection to the country is that it pays his wages.

Pogacar became one of the first 17.5 million people worldwide to be given immunity to this deadly virus from a total population of roughly 7.8 billion. We know that the virus is most devastating against the vulnerable and weak, yet in this case priority has been given to one of the fittest, healthiest individuals in the world.

Olympic vaccinations?

Alongside news that the likes of Pogacar, Gaviria and Davide Formolo were being given this life-saving defence against the coronavirus, we also had the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee, Dick Pound, offering his opinion on the vaccination of elite athletes in order for the Tokyo Olympics to take place this summer.

‘In Canada, where we might have 300 or 400 athletes – to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level – I don't think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that,’ Pound told Sky News.

‘It's a decision for each country to make and there will be people saying they are jumping the queue but I think that is the most realistic way of it [the Olympics] going ahead,’ Pound added.

I’m in no position to dictate to the UAE government how it should roll out its vaccination programme, or any government for that matter.

If it wants to use its vaccination doses on a professional cycling team or professional athletes, then that is its prerogative. After all, for the UAE at least, the cycling team is a sizeable investment for the country and this is an exercise in protecting its assets.

What's more, if the visible vaccination of high profile athletes helps mobilise more worldwide trust in this saving grace, then it should be placed under a spotlight.

But the cynic in me thinks this is not the case. For every fit, healthy, young professional athlete prioritised for a vaccination against the virus ahead of millions of vulnerable and elderly people or healthcare and front-line workers worldwide, I think the sour taste in my mouth will only build.

Sport is important, and no sporting event more so than the Olympic Games, while cycling is pivotal to our community. But is it important enough for an elite cyclist to jump the vaccination queue?

No, I don't think it is.