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International sport and COVID restrictions: The Novak Djokovic saga

The saga around tennis ace Novak Djokovic attempts to defend his title in the Australian Open highlights the thorny issue of reconciling strict national COVID regulations with the financial incentives to make concessions for top athletes.

The Guardian has compiled a Q&A on the key questions that still to be answered:

Did Djokovic actually test positive for COVID-19?

The world No 1 was given permission to play in Melbourne by Tennis Australia and the state authorities in Victoria only after providing a document showing he had a positive test for COVID on 16 December.

In the eyes of their medical panels – although not the Australian governmentʼs – that made him eligible for a medical exemption, which meant Djokovic did not have to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Australia,

However, on Monday (10 January), Der Spiegel claimed that when it scanned the QR code belonging to Djokovicʼs PCR test at 1.19pm German time it said: “Test result negative.” Yet an hour later, after another scan, it said: “Positive.”

Several others, including the New York Times journalist Ben Rothenberg, reported the same findings, with Rothenberg also posting a photo of the two different results. When The Guardian tried on Tuesday it returned universally positive results.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Der Spiegel said it had found an anomaly in the timestamp for the digital version of Djokovicʼs positive test which, it claimed, indicated the result may actually be from 26 December and not the 16th.

When asked about Djokovicʼs PCR test on Monday, his brother Djordje insisted the entire process was public and “all documents are legal”.

If Djokovic did test positive, why did he appear at several public events without a mask shortly afterwards?

Djokovic took a PCR test at 1pm on 16 December and received his positive result seven hours later. At the time of his test, Serbia legally required those who had COVID to self-isolate for 14 days or risk a fine. Instead Djokovic attended a ceremony for the unveiling of a stamp in his honour in Belgrade, which he posted about on Twitter, and then also posed with 23 young players at his tennis academy.

Meanwhile on 18 December, the French newspaper LʼÉquipe said he took part in its Champion of Champions awards photo shoot in Belgrade.

Djokovic is yet to comment. However when his brother, Djordje, was asked about those public appearances at a media event on Monday, he suddenly announced: “This press conference is adjourned at the moment.”

Did Djokovic fill in his Australian Travel Declaration form incorrectly?

When Djokovicʼs declaration was filed on 1 January, the answer “no” was ticked to the question: “Have you travelled, or will you travel, in the 14 days prior to your flight to Australia?”

However Djokovic flew to Melbourne from Spain on 4 January, having apparently spent the new year in Marbella. On 31 December a social media post also purported to show him participating in an activity with children from the SotoTennis Academy in Cádiz, where he filmed a message.

A tweet on Christmas Day from tennis journalist José Morgado suggests Djokovic was in Belgrade alongside the Serbian handball player Petar Djordjic, in an image taken from the latterʼs Instagram on the same day. A video of him playing tennis from a different account was posted on the same day and deleted on Tuesday.

In an affidavit Djokovic submitted to the court, he said he “authorised” his agent to submit the travel declaration form, although among the documents he also suggested it was Tennis Australia. In his interview with border officials, he seemed to credit it at different times to the Australian government and his agent or manager. The form states that “giving false and misleading information is a serious offence”.

“You may also be liable to a civil penalty for giving false or misleading information.”

Border officials also may have questions to answer, however, adds The Guardian. Serbia is not in the EU, but Spain is in the Schengen zone so if Djokovic had travelled, there should have been a stamp in his passport showing the date of his arrival in Spain.

Did the Australian Open and Victorian authorities ignore their own rules?

Tennis Australiaʼs chief executive Craig Tiley said last week the potential reasons for medical exemptions from vaccination to play in the tournament included previous adverse response to vaccines, recent major surgery or myocarditis or certified evidence of a COVID infection in the previous six months.

However, the deadline for applying for a medical exemption from vaccination to compete at the Australian Open was 10 December — six days before Djokovicʼs positive test result. Yet on 30 December it allowed the Serb to play. So why did the authorities appear to bend their own rules?

If Djokovic had not tested positive, what was his plan for competing in Melbourne?

On the face of it, he appeared likely to sit out a tournament he has won a record nine times until he caught COVID on 16 December, which suddenly satisfied Tennis Australia and the Victorian authorities that he deserved a medical exemption. But would the world No 1 really have spurned the chance to win a menʼs record-breaking 21st grand slam in Melbourne if he had not fallen ill?

What happens now?

Djokovic practised again on Tuesday while he awaited the decision of Australiaʼs immigration minister, Alex Hawke, who could yet revoke his visa for a second time using powers granted to him by Australiaʼs Migration Act.


The Guardian article – Q&A: the key questions that are still to be answered in Djokovic saga (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


From Sydney to Vienna: Restricting the unvaccinated underclass


WHO: COVID deaths in Europe could top 2.2m by March


Arrest and assault charge for Spanish man who knowingly spread COVID


Face mask laws link to significantly fewer COVID deaths — 44-nation study




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