The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will require athletes hoping to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 1.
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland announced the new policy in a letter to stakeholders on Wednesday. The letter and an internal document, both obtained by Yahoo Sports, clarify that the policy also applies to coaches, staffers and "our full Team USA delegation at future Olympic and Paralympic Games."
The International Olympic Committee did not mandate vaccination for the Tokyo Olympics this past summer, and has not indicated that it will introduce a mandate for the Winter Games in Beijing. Initial versions of its COVID-19 countermeasure "playbooks" are expected next month.
The USOPC also did not require Summer Olympic participants to be vaccinated, and roughly 100 of Team USA's 600-plus athletes competed in Tokyo while unvaccinated.
But Hirshland, citing "strong support" for the mandate from the USOPC's athlete council and sport-specific governing bodies, wrote: "This step will increase our ability to create a safe and productive environment for Team USA athletes and staff, and allow us to restore consistency in planning, preparation and service to athletes."
In the internal document, the USOPC said it will grant "exemption from the vaccine requirement for a legitimate medical reason or because of a sincerely held religious belief," but not for prior infection. Applications for exemptions will go "through an independent third party" and will be "reviewed on a case by case basis."
The document, though, indicates that unvaccinated athletes who receive an exemption could be subject to stricter protocols, and a separate FAQ says that they will be required to undergo daily COVID testing while with Team USA.
Without an exemption, they would not be allowed to attend the Olympics, irrespective of the IOC's policy.
And for Team USA staffers, "failure to comply with the vaccine requirement may result in discipline, up to and including termination of employment," the document states.
The mandate takes effect in stages, and on Nov. 1 applies to anybody entering a USOPC facility or taking part in a Team USA event.
A month later, on Dec. 1 — and two months before the Olympics, which begin Feb. 4 — it will apply to "all individuals on the long list for the Beijing Winter Games," including athletes, if they wish to participate.
The USOPC will send over 200 athletes to the Games, but many more will attempt to qualify. Anybody in contention will be on that "long list," and will be subject to the mandate.
Hirshland, in her letter, wrote that she had been hopeful, months ago, that the USOPC "would be lifting our COVID-19 restrictions by the time" the Tokyo Olympics finished. At the beginning of July, case counts in the U.S. had fallen below 15,000 per day.
They have since grown exponentially, to well over 100,000 per day.
"The stark reality," Hirshland wrote, "is that this pandemic is far from over."