Olympians must sign waiver assuming COVID-19 risk to compete in Tokyo Games

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The International Olympic Committee and organizers of the 2021 Tokyo Games will require competing athletes to sign a waiver and assume all risk related to COVID-19 throughout the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Yahoo Sports obtained a copy of the waiver, which is similar to those signed by participants at previous Olympics, but this includes updated language that protects the IOC and organizers specifically against consequences of the coronavirus that has infected at least 169 million people worldwide.

Section 4 of the waiver reads, in part: 

"I agree that I participate in the Games at my own risk and own responsibility, including any impact on my participation to and/or performance in the Games, serious bodily injury or even death raised by the potential exposure to health hazards such the transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious disease or extreme heat conditions while attending the Games."

The analogous form in 2016, also obtained by Yahoo Sports, did not mention disease or heat.

At a virtual forum on Thursday featuring IOC leadership and athletes, Mark Ladwig, a member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's Athletes' Advisory Council, asked about the waiver, and said it was a "question that many of our members are asking."

IOC president Thomas Bach acknowledged that "this is a concern for a number of you [athletes]."

IOC chief operating officer Lana Haddad then confirmed that "entry forms have been in place for previous Games, and have been updated to include COVID-19-related consideration." She said that this was "to provide transparency and ensure the informed consent from the Games participants."

Haddad claimed that the waivers were "within the framework of the law." In a statement to Yahoo Sports, the IOC reiterated that claim. Both also said that such waivers were "consistent with standard practice of other big event organizers," and indeed are common in amateur sports at all levels.

When asked via email what would happen if athletes refused to sign the waiver, an IOC spokesperson did not directly answer the question. Athlete representatives have pointed out that Olympians have been given neither a say in the document's language, nor any bargaining power to push back against the waivers, nor a say in the COVID-19 countermeasures that will be in place in Tokyo.

Organizers last month released version No. 2 of their countermeasures "playbooks," colorful documents outlining their plans to mitigate COVID risk during the Games. The countermeasures, developed in consultation with the World Health Organization, include daily testing for athletes, physical distancing at Olympic venues, and restrictions on movement outside the Olympic Village.

Some medical experts, however, have criticized the "playbooks" as insufficient. On Tuesday, four U.S.-based experts, including Michael Osterholm, a member of the Biden transition team's COVID-19 advisory board, wrote that they "believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence." The group cited measures like symptom checks and contact-tracing apps as ineffective or inferior to alternatives. Annie Sparrow, a global health specialist and one of the four authors, laid out specific critiques on Twitter:

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"The playbooks maintain that athletes participate at their own risk, while failing both to distinguish the various levels of risk faced by athletes and to recognize the limitations of measures such as temperature screenings and face coverings," the authors wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine article.

Other experts, including World Health Organization director Mike Ryan, have expressed "confidence" in the outlined countermeasures. “There's been a tremendous amount of work done on the playbooks for the delegations and the teams that are coming,” Ryan said last month.

Organizers plan to release a third and final version of the playbooks in June. Japan announced Friday that it was extending the latest COVID-19 state of emergency in the country through June 20 as daily cases hover above 4,000. Amid significant opposition to the Olympics in Japan, organizers have been adamant that the Games will go on as scheduled, beginning July 23.

"It is important to be transparent towards the participants regarding those measures and potential risks associated with their participation to the Games," the IOC said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. "Through the publication of the Playbooks and further information provided by their responsible organization, participants are informed of both the potential risks and of the measures put in place to address them and, by accepting the entry forms, participants provide their informed consent to attend the Games and their commitment to fully respect the measures designed to protect themselves and others.

"The entry forms have been actually in place for previous Games, and have been updated to include COVID-19 related considerations. This is really to provide transparency and ensures informed consent from the Games participants."

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