In what amounts to a public relations coup for China and a solution to a problem for the International Olympic Committee, the I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, announced on Thursday that China had agreed to provide coronavirus vaccines for any participant requiring one ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and next year’s Beijing Winter Games.
Bach said the Olympic committee would cover the cost of the vaccines for any Olympic and Paralympic competitors who needed them, and that distribution would take place through existing international agencies. It is unknown how many doses will be purchased or what the program will cost, but if vaccinating participants before they arrive reassures a skeptical public that the Games will not turn into a superspreader event for Japan — where polling has trended strongly against the Games and a national vaccination program is still in its early stages — the payoff for the I.O.C. will be incalculable.
Thursday’s announcement by Bach, elected to a new four-year term a day earlier, will help the I.O.C. resolve a sensitive matter that has been one of the many questions hanging over the Tokyo Games: how to ensure that thousands of visitors to Japan from around the world will be vaccinated when they arrive, and how to do so without making it look as if fit, young, elite athletes and their teams have jumped the line while the global death toll from the coronavirus continues to grow.
For China, the agreement with the I.O.C. — which will include two vaccines for the general population in an athlete’s home country for every one given to an Olympics participant — may help to deflect mounting public scrutiny and criticism about the country’s human rights record ahead of next year’s Beijing Winter Games.
While China has brushed aside any talk of losing its Games, activists have focused on the country stripping Hong Kong of its promised democratic freedoms and the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. In January, the United States government said the forced detentions of Uighurs amounted to “genocide.”
Bach gave few details about the program, the amount of vaccine that will be procured, or the potential cost. But it is unlikely to amount to a significant figure for the sports organization, which has been fostering closer links with China under Bach. In 2015, China stepped in to save Olympic officials in a tough spot with an offer to host the 2022 Winter Games, after the I.O.C. had a series of bids collapse amid growing public opposition. More recently, Chinese companies have agreed to partner with the Olympic movement, committing millions of dollars of support.
In recent months, China has also made vaccines a tool of its foreign policy, at times exporting precious doses even as it still needs tens of millions of them at home. It has approved four vaccines, and all are in either domestic or foreign use. The country produces single- and two-dose vaccines, but in trials each has produced varying degrees of efficacy.
Bach said the offer for vaccines was made by the Chinese Olympic Committee, confirming vague statements he had made earlier this year about securing batches of vaccine doses before the Games.
“The offer is to make additional vaccine doses available to participants for Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022,” Bach said in an address Thursday to the I.O.C.’s annual meeting.
“The Chinese Olympic Committee is ready in cooperation with the I.O.C. to make these additional doses available in two ways: either via collaboration with international partners, or directly in the numerous countries where agreements regarding Chinese vaccines are already in place.”
Bach emphasized that the I.O.C. would also pay for the extra doses for the general population of countries that require its assistance.
A growing number of countries, a group as diverse as India, Hungary and Israel, have announced already that they will push their Olympians to the front of their vaccination lines. Mexico’s president this month placed his country’s athletes in a priority group alongside medical workers and teachers. Lithuania has moved even faster; it began administering vaccine shots to its Olympians weeks ago.