The political dimension of an athlete's vaccination decision
Updated: Mar 9
This week tennis star Novak Đoković will not start at the ATP Masters events at Indian Wells. The tennis player's non-participation indicates that his application for a special exemption from US rules barring unvaccinated foreigners from entering the country until May 2023 has been rejected, although the United States Tennis Association and the US Open recently publicly expressed their support for allowing "one [of] the greatest champions of our sport" to participate at upcoming tournaments in the US despite his non-vaccination status. A few weeks ago, Đoković broke Steffi Graf's record when he became the first tennis player ever to lead the world rankings for at least 378 weeks. This historic sporting achievement resulted from the Serb's return to No.1 in the current rankings after winning the 2023 Australian Open. Last year, Đoković missed this Grand Slam tournament because of his refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19. His non-participation caused an international stir, including days of legal disputes about the athlete's entry into the country. In contrast, German footballer Joshua Kimmich was only confronted with primarily national discussions in Germany towards the end of the same year following media reports about his non-vaccination status. Although the Bayern Munich player has since been vaccinated, he shares with Đoković the line of argument that the (non-)vaccination decision is a private matter.
Without any intention to argue for or against Covid-19 vaccination, this article refers to Chantal Mouffe's theoretical work on agonistic democracy to reveal the political dimension behind the allegedly private decision of athletes to get vaccinated. Mouffe identifies 'the political' as the dimension of antagonism inherent in human relations. Also in the supposedly private context, people must always position themselves by making an individual choice between conflicting alternatives. Following Mouffe, in the context of Covid-19 vaccination, it can be considered constitutive of a vibrant democracy that there is an antagonism between getting the shot as a solidarity contribution in the fight against the pandemic and the individual freedom to decide about one's own physical integrity. Hence, the standpoints of Đoković and Kimmich on vaccination are not (exclusively) private, but part of the political debates like every other person's stance on this matter. However, the impact of famous sportsmen is even more pronounced in Covid-19 vaccination debates as they receive high credibility on such health-related matters. As role models with an enormous reach, athletes are likely to influence people's standpoints, either prioritising solidarity for society with their vaccination or demanding individual freedom to decide on their physical integrity.
Moreover, the vaccination decision made by Kimmich and Đoković must be linked to the antagonisms regarding the tightening and relaxation of Covid-19 regulations. The essential conflict between collectively sticking to those rules to keep the pandemic under control and not restricting one's own freedom anymore is likely to be influenced by unvaccinated athletes enjoying pre-Covid-19 rights. Back in autumn 2021, the peculiar situation that Kimmich was allowed to play in stadiums while vaccination requirements would have denied him entry as a spectator fostered criticism of alleged privileges for distinct sectors of society like professional football. Analogously, the heated debates around the participation of the unvaccinated Đoković at the Australian Open in early 2021 must be seen in the light of the country's harsh lockdown measures, including rigorous entry requirements that prevented family members from seeing each other for at least two years. The unvaccinated tennis player Đoković could have become "a symbol of the Australian government's leniency regarding its own restrictions".
Claiming that athletes' standpoints on vaccination have a political weight as they are part of antagonistic attitudes in society leads to a crucial point in Mouffe's theoretical work on agonistic pluralism. Following the political theorist, an ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions is necessary to provide a common symbolic space, with conflicting sides mutually respecting one another's right to exist so that even irreconcilable opinions are accepted as legitimate perspectives. However, the cases of Kimmich and Đoković show that society has not succeeded in establishing such a common symbolic space that defuses the antagonism inherent in the peoples' (non-)vaccination decision into agonism. For example, media representatives went to the funeral of Kimmich's grandfather to interview relatives on the player's initial non-vaccination decision. Meanwhile, people on social media gloated over Kimmich's Covid-19 illness, demonstrating how an initial sceptic of the Covid-19 vaccination was treated unfavourably, not just as a human being with another opinion.
In contrast, Srdjan Đoković, the tennis player's father, blended criticism of opposition to his son's non-vaccination decision and treatment of Australian authorities when he attacked then Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government for neither respecting his son's individual rights nor court decisions. In the legal dispute about the athlete's entry into Australia, to give just one example, Srdjan Đoković alleged "dictator Scott" and Australia's "fake democracy" of holding his son "as a political prisoner". Like "a terrorist in Guantanamo Bay", the tennis player would be "treated by ethnic racists as a lower-class citizen". Such morally loaded statements portrayed the Australian government as a vicious enemy, ruling out any possibility of a substantial debate about vaccination and certain restriction in case of non-vaccination. Then again, the media coverage in the Đoković case shows how problematic personalisation is in discourses on a person's non-vaccination decision. If articles end up reviewing the question of whether the tennis player believes in basic scientific facts or promotes conspiracy theories with his esoteric lifestyle, no room is left for genuine political vaccination debates that argue between the antagonistic priorities of solidarity and the individual freedom to decide on one's own physical integrity.
As Mouffe's concept remains vague on the required settings of practices, discourses and institutions and how this complex ensemble should fit into each other to provide a common symbolic space, this essay cannot deliver the ultimate solution for the needed framework for agonistic politics surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the examples of Đoković and Kimmich surely mirror general discussions on Covid-19 vaccination or regulations in which people with opposing opinions fail to treat each other as legitimate political adversaries.
Graduate Student M.A. International Sport Development and Politics
German Sport University Cologne
 This paragraph was updated from the original which stated that Đoković did not participate in the Australian Open in 2021 and 2022.
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