Covid vaccine row over Novak Djokovic's attempt to enter Australia has created a ridiculous circus when we need positive role models more than ever – Christine Jardine MP

I love tennis. All sports in fact. And over the years many of my role models and idols have been sports stars.

I have written before about my admiration for Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, younger stars like Marcus Rashford and the example they all set for their generations.

But this past week I have found the debacle over Novak Djokovic’s attempts to enter Australia deeply frustrating.

Not because Djokovic is anti-vaccine. I vehemently disagree with him, but it is a choice that he is rightly free to make. Neither is it because his commitment to his sport and career led him to seek a way to defend his Australian Open title.

But it is because of the ridiculous circus that has been the response to his failure to meet Australian government entry requirements.

In this pandemic we have all, in every country of the world, had to cope with fear over the threat to our health or livelihoods. In many cases, both.

We have all dealt with frustration over the difficulties caused by the protective regulations put in place by our governments.

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Novak Djokovic's supporters have falsely claimed the tennis star is being held prisoner despite the fact he is free to leave Australia (Picture: William West/AFP via Getty Images)

And we have railed, in this country in particular, against those rule-makers who have somehow regarded themselves as excluded from their remit.

And now the world’s top tennis player seems somehow to have imagined that his decision not to be vaccinated should have no consequences and that there should be no implications for his freedom to travel.

I am sorry but it doesn’t work that way. Whoever you are.

That is not to say that the Australian government and tennis authorities have covered themselves in glory in the way that they have handled the affair.

Novak Djokovic has not provided the Australian authorities with evidence of vaccination or medical reasons why he could not be inoculated (Picture: Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)

They have made mistakes and their general approach to immigration is often controversial.

But the rules they are defending are those which every Australian citizen and visitor to the country is obliged to adhere to.

There was an understandable wave of public anger when it appeared that Djokovic was going to be allowed to ignore them.

Other tennis stars, while not criticising him directly, acknowledged that there was an issue.

Nadal pointed out that there wouldn’t be a problem if his rival simply got vaccinated.

While Wimbledon champion Ash Barty – who endured months of separation from her family so that she could meet required regulations – talked of the hardships many of her compatriots have faced.

Although 90 per cent of those eligible are vaccinated, Australia is currently facing a surge of cases totalling more than 25,000 a day.

That has meant the testing and hospital systems are under intense pressure, further exacerbating the popular stress being felt.

And, it turns out, Djokovic is not the only tennis player denied entry for the tournament.

The significance of the issue also now stretches far beyond his sport, whose governing body in Australia faces questions over whether it ignored government advice.

The Victoria authorities have also queried whether government advice was passed on by the tennis organisers.

Perhaps least attractive have been declarations from Djokovic supporters about his treatment.

Surely the issue should be whether any of those in immigration detention or Covid quarantine are receiving acceptable treatment?

And the ridiculous suggestion that he is being held prisoner was quickly debunked by an Australian minister who pointed out that he is free to leave the country at any time.

Personally I find it curious that the England cricket team and countless other tennis players seem able to meet the regulations for entry to Australia.

Similarly sports events all over the world, including the Olympics, Wimbledon and Euro 2020 were able to take place, their competitors going to extraordinary lengths to be able to compete.

What has gone wrong in Melbourne?

Did the tennis authorities get carried away with their enthusiasm to see one of tennis’s greatest stars break a grand slam record in the Australian Open?

Or did Novak Djokovic miscalculate the consequences of rejecting vaccination and then find that his stature did not allow him the leeway that he imagined? Or perhaps his apparent lack of respect in his approach to the issue goaded the Australian authorities to be uncompromising in their response?

Whatever the cause, the result has been damaging both for the individual and his sport.

Regardless of the outcome of his visa appeal today, Djokovic is in danger of creating the image of a man who does not believe he needs to follow rules, and has set an example to his generation which many of us find difficult to see.

Protests in Belgrade and statements from his supporters which seem to involve little recognition of either the reality of life for many in the pandemic or anything other than Djokovic’s right to play in the Australian Open don’t help.

There was already resentment of the attitude which led him to hold an independent tournament in the early days of the pandemic despite numerous calls and advice to abandon a project which ended in controversy and Covid cases.

Over the past two years, we have both missed our sports at times and looked to its stars to lift our spirits at others.

The excitement which greeted Emma Radacanu lifting the US Open trophy and the emotion which surrounded Ash Barty’s Wimbledon victory, without her family because of Covid restrictions, were highlights of 2021.

Tennis provided a light for many in the darkness and gave us something to cheer about.

Today we need that same spirit again. For Djokovic to accept both his own responsibility and the right of a democratically elected government to impose regulations to protect the health and economy of its citizens in a crisis. And for the authorities on both sides to make peace with each other.

This generation, perhaps more than any other, needs positive examples from those it admires.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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