SYDNEY - Australia started administering COVID-19 vaccines to athletes around the country on Monday to give them "comfort and certainty" for their final preparations for the Tokyo Olympics.
Australia has been relatively slow to roll out vaccines to the general population but Olympic and Paralympic athletes have been allowed to jump the queue before they travel to the July 23-Aug. 8 Games.
Former world champion swimmer Cate Campbell was among athletes vaccinated at the Queensland Academy of Sport in Brisbane on Monday.
"It's a huge weight off your shoulders to be able to have access to this vaccine," said Campbell, who won back-to-back freestyle relay gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
"I'd really, really like to thank the AOC (Australian Olympic Committee) and the federal government for allowing us to have this extra line of protection because we are going into a pretty unknown situation over in Tokyo.
"So to have this little bandaid is a huge weight off everyone's shoulders."
The AOC has set up vaccination centres in Australia's state capitals and Canberra.
More than 2,000 athletes, coaches and officials nominated by the AOC and Paralympics Australia are expected to receive their shots before they travel.
AOC Chief Executive Matt Carroll told reporters it was "obviously going to give the athletes that comfort and that certainty of their competition.
"It's a great help to the people of Japan as well, obviously the athletes going into Tokyo and also for the people of Australia, the athletes will come home healthy and safe as well."
Japan has extended a state of emergency in Tokyo until the end of May and is struggling to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, raising questions about whether the Games should go on.
Its vaccination rate is the lowest among wealthy nations.
The AOC, whose president John Coates is also the International Olympic Committee's point man for the Tokyo Games, is "very confident" they will go ahead, said Carroll.
"The Prime Minister of Japan has said the Games are going ahead and said that the playbooks have been put in place for the Games themselves, and for the athletes and to protect the people of Japan as well," Carroll added.
"Yes, the IOC are doing some work .... to explain that very well to the Japanese public that the risk to them is very low in the Games."
(Reporting by Stefica Nicol Bikes; Writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +61 3 9286 1447;))