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The tennis star and the virus

For Novak Djokovic to be able to decide not to get vaccinated, it is necessary for the rest of us to already be vaccinated. Only in this way does his gesture take on libertarian overtones

Tennis player Novak Djokovic
Tennis player Novak Djokovic in a file photo.GREG WOOD (AFP)

In The Impostor, a book published in 2014 by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas, there is a brilliant reflection about Enric Marco, a man who fabricated a life of heroism, resistance and captivity by the Nazis. The author had to tell the story, not of who this man had really been (“an utterly normal man, a member of the vast, silent, cowardly, grey, depressing majority who always says Yes”) but of “an exceptional person, one of those singular individuals who always says No, or who says No when everyone else says Yes.” Novak Djokovic has not had to lie to become that exceptional individual whom anti-vaxxers see as the man who, amid the apparent meekness of those of us who follow recommendations and obey the rules, said No at a tremendous cost to himself. As BBC journalist Amol Rajan put it in an interview with the tennis star, he is “a deeply committed libertarian who believes strongly in individual autonomy.”

This fails to address a more sensitive issue: for someone to gain prestige by swimming against the tide, defying the authorities and rebelling against the imposition of the so-called “world order,” this person needs the rest of us to do the exact opposite of what he’s doing. That is to say, for Djokovic to be able to decide not to get vaccinated, it is necessary for the rest of us to already be vaccinated. Only in this way does his gesture take on libertarian overtones, and his health is not likely to be compromised in any case. If we were all Djokovic, just like all the slaves declared themselves to be Spartacus, and we were to announce that “the principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” the world would be stuck at home, businesses closed, hospitals overwhelmed and the virus killing people left and right (it’s not science-fiction: it’s the pandemic world without vaccines). Djokovic can afford not to get vaccinated because we have done so for him, and that is why the US Open, the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and any global sports event that requires the work, movement and concentration of thousands of people can be held: not because he isn’t vaccinated, but because the rest of us are.

And that is the reason why Djokovic’s words are hard to refute without context. But with context, they change a bit. Has he always made decisions over his own body? Also with regard to viruses that we were vaccinated against as children, precisely to stop those viruses from making a comeback? Does Djokovic believe that if a majority of the world’s population thought and acted like him, the world would look the way it does now? The tennis player clarifies in the interview that he is not against vaccines, not even against Covid-19 vaccines, but that he’d rather wait. And he puts some distance between himself and the anti-vaxxer movement, which he says he has never belonged to. And while it is true that it’s not his fault if a minority made him into their leader, it was also naïve to think that this minority would not turn him – the world’s top tennis player – into a symbol for those who reject scientific progress and its results.

It’s not that he would stand out like a sore thumb among that crowd, either. He lied in Australia. He gathered at a public event with a group of people, without wearing a face mask, after testing positive. Years ago he found out that he was allergic to gluten because his nutritionist told him to hold a slice of bread in his left hand while he pressed the right arm. The right arm felt weaker, and gluten was to blame, according to the practitioner. Djokovic also believes that positive thoughts can clean contaminated water because water molecules react to emotions. And he has a spiritual guide named Pepe Imaz, a prophet “of love and the world of energies” who seems incapable of uttering even a halfway normal sentence. According to Imaz, good vibes can cure everything, even disease.

One is free to choose what to do with their body, whether eating a hamburger or smoking a cigarette. The problem is not when you make sovereign decisions about your own body, but when your sovereignty invades other people’s. On his side of the tennis court, Djokovic is alone; in life, when he walks out of the house, he is not.


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