For three decades, Kelly Slater dominated the Australian waves. He first rang the iconic Bell’s Beach bell in 1994, then again in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Six times he has triumphed in competition on the Gold Coast. On their way to winning a record 11 world titles, famous breakaways across Australia have often provided an early season launching pad for the American star.
Maybe never again. The World Surf League recently savvy surfers that remaining unvaccinated before the 2022 season would pose “significant challenges” and could prohibit them “from entering certain countries if they are not fully vaccinated”. Topping the list is Australia, where the WSL is expected to head in April for events at Bells Beach in Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia. While entry requirements for the country for non-residents have yet to be confirmed, it is expected – as with the Australian Open – that unvaccinated athletes will be banned or subject to strict quarantine requirements. .
Slater, a tour veteran who will soon turn 50, is reportedly unvaccinated against Covid-19. It sparked controversy in a recent comment on Instagram, criticizing the pro-vaccination advocacy of Australian Ironman athlete Matt Poole. “If anything happens to me, it’s to me, not to someone else,” Slater wrote. “And for the people who say they listen to doctors, I’m sure I know more about health than 99% of doctors.” The surfer has no medical qualification.
Unless Slater’s take on vaccination changes (he insisted he’s not against vaccinations, just that he doesn’t currently feel comfortable being vaccinated against Covid-19), or authorities loosen restrictions, it looks like the best surfer of all time can never compete on Australian beaches again. He is not the only one either. Brazilian Gabriel Medina, who won the 2020/21 WSL season thanks to victories in Australia at Rottnest Island and Narrabeen, admitted last year that he had refused a vaccination ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. His current status is unclear – he then insisted his failure to get the vaccine was a ‘mistake’, adding that ‘the vaccine saves lives, guys!
Slater’s predicament underscores a looming dilemma for international sporting competitions. While Australia’s long-closed borders are now slowly reopening, the blanket ban on foreign arrivals is being replaced with strict vaccination requirements by international standards. In sports notable for their globetrotter – including tennis, golf, road cycling, Formula 1, surfing and cricket – Australia’s entry requirements make non-vaccination a handicap competitive important. In a season of good margins, passing one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, a Grand Prix or two WSL stages is unthinkable. Where is it?
“I don’t think an unvaccinated tennis player will get a visa to enter this country,” Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews recently insisted, while defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, refused to reveal whether or not he had been vaccinated. âAnd if they got a visa, they should probably be quarantined for a few weeks. But let’s not personalize it. I don’t think of others [unvaccinated] tennis player, golfer or Formula 1 driver will even get a visa to come here. Djokovic told the New York Times that he is not against vaccines in general, but that he does not agree with the mandates – especially for the Covid-19 vaccine.
By comparison, anyone can enter the UK without a vaccination – but must self-isolate at home for 10 days and test negative twice. In the past, the UK government has relaxed entry rules for Premier League stars competing abroad during the international break. In the United States, non-nationals must be vaccinated, but there is no general quarantine rule for returning unvaccinated citizens. Singapore has also adopted a vaccine-only approach. While Australia may be on the strictest end of the spectrum, it is by no means the only country to insist on the vaccine.
Globally, sports are grappling with how to ensure widespread immunization among athletes and staff. The AFL has been at the forefront, implementing a vaccination mandate that requires all players and staff in the AFL and AFLW football department to be vaccinated in order to train and to play. The NRL insisted it would not take the same approach, although it admitted that state health rules and airline requirements could take the issue away from them. In the LNB, 99% of players have received at least one dose before the start of the season next month; upon reaching this high level of coverage, a number of players who refused to get the jab were released from their contracts.
These numbers compare favorably with foreign leagues – only around 70% of Premier League stars are double stitched, while the rates in the big American leagues soar just over 90% – largely without the use of league-imposed mandates. But there have been wide-ranging blockages – Kyrie Irving hasn’t played a minute this season for the Brooklyn Nets, having refused the vaccine in the face of a New York City requirement for anyone entering indoor gyms , including the Nets stage, be vaccinated. Although Irving remains on the bench, he only receives half of his annual salary of $ 45 million.
While interest in top national athletes who have refused vaccination may wane once the leagues resume operations, international competitions are set to face an ongoing headache. With major world events on the agenda, including the UCI Road World Championships and the Fiba Women’s Basketball World Cup next September, the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, and the expected return of F1 at Albert Park and the Tour Down Under in South Australia, being vaccinated is likely to be an indeed essential requirement for jet-set sports stars.
As long as people like Slater and Irving resist the vaccine, their fame and athletic prowess will mean leagues and governing bodies will strive to meet local demands while trying to meet reluctance. Yet with state prime ministers standing firm, a compromise in Australia seems unlikely. Slater’s rivals on the WSL will breathe easy knowing they have one less foe in the water at Bells Beach next Easter.