Alternate for Team USA Gymnastics May Head to Tokyo Without a COVID Vaccine

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Carmen Mandato/Getty
Carmen Mandato/Getty

Leanne Wong, a 2018 junior champion gymnast, was named Sunday evening as a replacement on the U.S. Olympic team—but still has no plans to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus before heading to Tokyo next month.

The 17-year-old artistic gymnast is on a four-person replacement team slated to depart for the Tokyo Olympic Games in July, and she and her scientist parents have yet to make a decision on the COVID-19 vaccine, her coach told The Daily Beast.

“I do know for a fact that so far, Leanne has not been vaccinated,” said Al Fong, who has trained the Tokyo-bound athlete for years at the Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Missouri.

USA Today first reported that Wong had not been vaccinated late Sunday, after it was announced that she would join Team USA’s Tokyo-bound gymnasts, led by Simone Biles, as a reserve.

Fong said Monday that he had initially “assumed” that the gymnast had been vaccinated and believed that after Sunday’s announcement, Wong would get the vaccine on Monday. But on Monday afternoon, he learned Wong’s parents had not yet made a decision.

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The apparent hesitation places Wong among a small group of Olympic athletes who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, some of whom have declined jabs over fears they might affect their performance, The Guardian reported. Earlier this month, Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi announced that close to 80 percent of the athletes who qualified for the Tokyo Olympics had already been vaccinated against the virus.

“What we are doing now is to contact every single National Olympic Committee and athlete and see where we can help. We continue the effort until we have contacted every single one,” Dubi said during a virtual news conference.

Fong said that after a conversation with Wong’s father it became clear that the gymnast’s parents “have not decided one way or the other” on whether their daughter would receive the Pfizer vaccine, which has been deemed safe for children as young as 12, ahead of the Olympic Games.

Wong’s parents are scientists. Her father, Marco Wong, is the medical director of a biotech company, “so he’s got insight into things that most people don’t have,” Fong said.

Typically a parent or guardian needs to be present for a minor to receive the vaccine in Missouri, according to the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services.

On Sunday, Wong finished eighth overall after two days of Olympic trials in St. Louis. In 2019, she was a Pan American Games team champion and an American Cup champion.

As a replacement athlete, Wong could be called to step in if one of her teammates is injured or tests positive for the coronavirus. Team USA’s women’s gymnastics replacement group consists of Kayla DiCello, Kara Eaker, and Emma Malabuyo, who placed sixth through ninth during the trials.

Fong said Eaker, whom he also coaches, has been vaccinated. Fong also got the shot months ago, he said.

Even so, Fong insisted he’s not concerned about Wong getting jabbed before she joins the team in Tokyo.

“There are so many precautions going on here—we’re being tested so many times and there are so many checkpoints that—you know—they’re making sure,” Fong said. “So that doesn’t bother me at all.”

In addition to tests taken before departure and upon arrival in Japan, athletes will be “tested daily to minimize the risk of undetected positive cases that could transmit the virus,” according to the International Olympic Committee’s rulebook outlining protocols for the Games.

Any athletes who test positive during the Games will not be permitted to compete. Masking, social distancing, and restrictions on movement outside of Games venues will also be observed, according to IOC rules.

Roughly 11,000 Olympic athletes are expected in Tokyo next month from over 200 countries.

Last month, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had agreed to donate vaccines to competitors and staff at the Tokyo Games, in an effort to address ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The chief executive for U.S. Olympic Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said in April that USOPC would help athletes find a COVID-19 vaccine but would not require the shot to compete at the Tokyo Summer Games.

“We are not tracking, we will not mandate the vaccine either for Team USA athletes nor for any other members of the delegation,” CEO Sarah Hirshland said during the opening session of the three-day Team USA virtual media summit. “But we are encouraging it.”

Neither Wong nor her parents could be reached for comment. USOPC did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Team USA athletes who are opting not to get vaccinated.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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