(ATR) Neven Ilic views with astonishment and respect what is happening with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I greatly appreciate the effort being made by the government of Japan and the International Olympic Committee,” says the president of Panam Sports, who would not even want to imagine himself in a similar situation with the Pan American Games. However, the Chilean leader would have preferred that the Games decided to make vaccination obligatory.
“It would have been tremendously positive for all athletes to arrive in Tokyo vaccinated, as an obligation,” said Ilic during an interview with Around the Rings in which he also explained the program that Panam Sports is undertaking as of this week: to vaccinate in Miami any athlete and official from the 41 Olympic committees of the Americas who is accredited for Tokyo and has not been able to be vaccinated in his or her country. Panam Sports is even covering the cost of airfare.
“Any American who has the credential and is going to Tokyo can get vaccinated,” explained Ilic. The program is no small feat for Latin America, which is today the region hardest hit in the world by the Covid pandemic and where many countries’ vaccination programs are almost symbolic.
- How did you arrive at the idea of vaccinating those accredited for the Games?
- First of all, I am convinced that it would have been tremendously positive if all athletes arrived in Tokyo vaccinated, as an obligation. I don’t want to get into trouble and each position is very respectable, but we are trying to have those athletes who did not have the possibility to be vaccinated in their countries get the vaccine. We even cover the cost of the ticket so that there is no justification for not going.
- Are you also going to pay for the cost of the stay?
- For the time being the ticket, because they can go for one or two days. If it comes to it, we will look into it. The University of Miami, the medical team and the Mexican Consul in Florida were extremely kind. And I must thank Jimena Saldaña (vice-president of the Mexican Olympic Committee) for opening the door for us. On Monday, athletes from Guatemala and Paraguay already arrived, they will be able to choose which type of vaccine to apply, but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is positive, because it is a single dose. What matters to us is that they arrive in Tokyo vaccinated. I am not a doctor, but I understand that vaccination helps a lot to prevent and to make things not so serious.
- Are the 4,000 doses in Miami and the 2,000 available in Houston enough?
- I understand that larger countries such as Brazil and Argentina are already being vaccinated. But we will do whatever is necessary, the University of Miami is open, if we need more vaccines they will give us more vaccines. And we are also incorporating the athletes who will go to the Pan American Junior Games in Cali, because we also want to make it a requirement that everyone be vaccinated. If we can make the Games safer, welcome.
Jimena Saldaña, Mexican Olympic Committee vice-president (CCS)
- What role did Jimena Saldaña play?
- Knowing that Jimena was at the embassy in Washington, I called her and told her that I needed to contact the authorities in Florida. Jimena contacted the Mexican consul. We jumped on the bandwagon, it was quick. Athletes and officials are being vaccinated. With another vaccine it gets complicated, because it would mean going back to the U.S. once again. They can choose whichever one they want, but the recommendation of the medical team at the University of Miami is Johnson & Johnson.
- Why vaccinate everyone in the United States?
- The logistics are very complicated, you depend on the authorization of ministries, of each country, of the storage and distribution procedures, of coordinating with 41 countries... It sounds easy, but it is tremendously difficult to coordinate the entry of a vaccine into a country. That is why it was decided to concentrate everything in Miami and to vaccinate there all those who should be vaccinated. The United States, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, probably Canada, all of them are vaccinated. This is aimed at smaller countries in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, although the possibility is for all those who have an Olympic credential for Tokyo in the continent.
- Does that include journalists?
- Yes, it does. But without paying their airfare. Any American who has the credential and goes to Tokyo can be vaccinated.
- Would you like to make vaccination a condition for going to Tokyo?
- I would love for everyone to arrive vaccinated.
- What prevented it?
- Tokyo has not been under my hand. It is a decision of the government of Japan and the International Olympic Committee, and their decision is that it is not necessary to arrive vaccinated. That is why it is a personal decision. We are facilitating the conditions for those who do not have vaccines in their countries and want to be vaccinated. In the case of Cali, these are Games that are under my tutelage and I would like us to agree that it is an obligation to arrive vaccinated.
- There may be athletes who are anti-vaccination, do you take that into account?
- That may come up. I have not yet discussed it with the executive committee, there may be an option to make a previous quarantine. And on the other hand, it seems to me that people are very free to choose not to be vaccinated, but that can generate a bigger problem. We are not going to prohibit anyone from competing, but we have to rationalize the risk that exists, and we will look for ways to make people see that it is safer to arrive protected through a vaccine.
- The Tokyo Games are facing difficulties in this final stretch, will the Panam Sports camp be maintained in Tachikawa prior to the Tokyo Games?
- We are keeping it in Tachikawa. Adapting to the schedule is essential for proper performance. It is said that it is one day per hour, and we have a 14-hour time difference with Japan. We are going to do it because the athletes need it and we are going to do it with all the necessary safety conditions.
- What do the Tokyo Games generate for you?
- A gigantic uncertainty. So far there are several uncertainties. I appreciate the effort they are making. I imagine this with the Pan American Games and it is very difficult what Japan and the IOC are facing. They are making the effort because it is worth it. We will understand there what it means to hold the Olympic Games under these conditions. They are going to be very, very different Games, but I wish them the best, because I have seen what they have sacrificed to make them happen.
- Is there any possibility that the Games will not be held? There is a lot of opposition from a large segment of the Japanese population.
- I don’t see any possibility that they won’t be done, I think it would be a shame. In all our countries there are always people who like to oppose instead of building and looking for ways to move forward. The easiest thing to do is to show opposition. Here we have a sports family and we have to do our best to make this a tremendous success.
- The Central American and Central American and Caribbean Games will be held in El Salvador in the same year as the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games. Does Panam Sports have a problem with that?
- These are difficult times and we have to support each other among the organizations. Luis Mejia (president of Centro Caribe Sports) called me before making the decision and our answer was very clear: these are difficult times and we have to support each other. We will see what is the best way to ensure that the Pan American Games in November 2023 and the Central American and Caribbean Games are not harmed. This does not have to be the case. It was not easy to solve the problem, and I am very glad it has been solved. And if the 2022 Odesur Games in Asuncion had any problem, we would also be available.
- Mejía says that in times of Covid you don’t do what you want or what you must, you do what you can. Do you agree?
- I agree, what is possible in the best possible way.
- Any concern about the Odesur Games in Asuncion, Paraguay?
- From what I have spoken with Camilo Perez they have been progressing quite well, as we have in Santiago. What cannot wait or be missing is the infrastructure, there the Games are at risk. Everything else can be accommodated. Paraguay has an incredible high performance center where it will host many sports. I know that they have yet to start the velodrome. But all the Games today require total flexibility. We have to be very flexible, and Panam Sports is going to be very flexible.
- Why did you postpone the Junior Games, because of the political crisis in Colombia?
- The Junior Pan American Games were moved more for a Covid issue, to have a higher percentage of the population vaccinated. We hope to offer safer conditions for our young athletes and that the conditions in Colombia have eased and they have agreed on how to move forward. It helped us for the Junior Pan American Games in Cali, and we thank the Colombian government for its predisposition. We hope to have a much better Covid situation by the end of the year.
- Are you worried about the infrastructure of Santiago 2023?
- In Lima it gave me a headache, but in the end they did a fantastic job. In Santiago the village starts in two months, a project with 1,350 apartments, and there are two other projects starting in the area around the national stadium. That gives me peace of mind, but the infrastructure will occupy me until the last day before the Games.
- Could the tense political situation in Chile affect the Pan American Games?
- No, it has not affected them, and in general sport is not affected by politics in Chile. Sport is a way of uniting.
Homepage photo: Panam Sports
Written and reported by Sebastian Fest