On the morning of Sept. 27, 2021, Josh Hargis opened a private video-chat link for what the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee billed as an open dialogue about its newly implemented mandate. Everyone on Team USA would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Nov. 1, unless they could obtain a medical exemption — or a religious one. The executive order to jump the scientific starting gun on the 2022 Winter Games was a harrowing decision, senior Olympic officials acknowledge, not least because they knew the anti-vaxxer crowd — emboldened by an emerging class of brazenly unvaccinated superstar athletes — would come at them with fake news.
“From the start of the pandemic, we have made science-based, data-driven decisions,” the USOPC’s CEO wrote in a memo to all American athletes, which was attached to an invitation for the meeting and obtained by Rolling Stone. “There is strong support for this requirement from our community.”
Among two-dozen or so athletes who joined the call, according to four people on it, a half-dozen passionate vaccine skeptics emerged: Several cited a controversial Israeli study about natural immunity. One athlete with a first-responder day job reported what she said were front-line limitations of the jab. When a would-be Olympian brought up a case study from Europe, the USOPC’s medical chief gently brushed it away and reiterated that the American Centers for Disease Control guidelines are the law of the land and the ice. Hargis perceived the Olympic doctors as “just throwing up their hands” and “disregarding” the alleged evidence presented by a fledgling resistance. But he sensed something more fundamental than Fauci-fied boilerplate on the other end of a Zoom: The American hero felt betrayed by Team USA.
You may remember Josh Hargis as former Corporal Joshua Hargis, Third Battalion, 75th Army Ranger Regiment, retired. On Oct. 6, 2013, he stepped on an IED during a deadly suicide-bombing ambush in Afghanistan. He emerged from surgery, in and out of consciousness, confined beneath a hospital blanket that was draped in enough broad stripes to resemble the flag. Both of his legs were gone. His commanding officer hung a Purple Heart from a feeding tube, and Hargis, against doctors’ orders, still managed to raise a customary hand toward his forehead. The so-called “salute seen around the world” went viral.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, Hargis has found a second career as a two-time world champion for Team USA in sled hockey, alongside several fellow disabled veterans careening for gold on skateboard-shaped sleighs. A modern-day “miracle on ice,” NBC called his journey. The 2022 Paralympics were in sight; with a strong season, so was the best medal after the Purple Heart. Then the pandemic hit, and the 32-year-old Hargis, citing a lack of data on long-term health effects and his wife’s auto-immune disorder, invoked his freedom to refuse vaccination.
The contentious call last September was sandwiched in the same week between Team USA’s countdown to inoculation and an overruling pseudo-mandate from the International Olympic Committee — get vaxxed, or spend three weeks in quarantine once you get to China. Hargis, shook, prepared to file a religious exemption to meet the American deadline, then make the final roster and defend USA Hockey’s gold. But he claims that coaching staffers pressured him and several teammates to agree right away, more than a month before Team USA’s deadline, to get jabbed and get on with training. The Friday after the executive order came down, Hargis recalls being told, “We need to know by Monday: You’re either going to get vaccinated, or you’re going to opt out.” (USA Hockey declined to comment.)
“I was absolutely fucking pissed,” Hargis says in an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone. “I was told it was for performance-based reasons, but I think that everything goes into it — this last year of the majority being vaccinated, peoples’ individual feelings toward the vaccine — and it boils down to the vaccine mandate is why I got cut.”
The war hero lost his spot, but not his battled-hardened beliefs: Hargis continued his fight, unreported until now, to form a coalition of the unwilling, unvaccinated, unscientific, and occasionally straight-up unhinged. Stitch together Team USA’s denial of the vaccine-denying soldier with a patchwork of Olympians — a Swiss snowboarder in isolation, a Dutch speed-skater co-opted by conspiracy theorists, a famously maskless American swimmer, another medal hopeful intimidated by her own future with the U.S. Army, among others — and you’ll notice a tapestry quietly hanging over the Winter Games, as torn and frayed as the world outside.
With haters galore and careers to lose, the non-superstar class of unvaxxed athletes has struggled to emerge from the shadows of wishful texting and conspiratorial DMs. And their numbers are dwindling: A Rolling Stone survey of executives and athletes from 87 nations found signs of just one unvaccinated competitor at the Olympics, as even vaccine skeptics in the NFL, NBA, and NHL roll their eyes at booster shots and literally take one for the team. Still, Hargis and his band of believers suggest a rattle and hum of what he calls “an overwhelming voice of athletes that are in opposition.”
Medical officials and Team USA’s own athlete advocates, meanwhile, insist that anti-vaxxer influence must succumb to the facts of the unrelenting pandemic. “Let’s not forget, this is not just about the individual athlete — this is about their fellow teammate, their coach, even their competitor,” Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, the chief medical officer of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, tells RS while preparing a makeshift Team USA testing facility in Los Angeles, before the delegation takes off for China next week. “Vaccines give us our best shot to keep our entire community safe. Science has proven it. The CDC has confirmed it. And I stand by it.”
Michael Andrew is the OG of vaccine-denying athletes. Before the Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving began to boycott New York City’s vaccine mandate in October, Andrew admitted that he was one of approximately 100 unvaccinated members of Team USA at last summer’s delayed Tokyo Games. Before the Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hid his vaccination status from public view and thanked Joe Rogan for his medical advice, the champion swimmer was out here talking freedom in a tank top on Fox Business Network. Before Novak Djokovic fought the Australian Open with a medical exemption, and the Australians won, Michael Andrew said that wearing a mask during NBC interviews made it difficult for him to breathe underwater.
“You look at Novak Djokovic,” Andrew tells Rolling Stone. “And I look at Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers and what they’re doing, and I’m encouraged by it and motivated. Being able to stand up, it has an effect.”
Andrew is speaking by phone from Coronado, California, where the Republican mayor refuses to enforce a mask mandate. (“Even on the label on the mask, it’s like, ‘This thing’s not gonna protect you from particles,’” Andrew claims. “If a mask really works as well as they said, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now.”) Wherever on Earth Michael Andrew is, it’s a place where he remains proudly unvaccinated. (“I was actually sick just this other week, and I didn’t get tested — took a Z-Pak and Ivermectin, and I’m feelin’ great!”) His world is a place where hand-sanitizer is enough prevention for a dude in reigning-gold-medalist shape who sees a return to normal like the next flip-turn right there at the end of the pool. (“If someone is immunocompromised and is at risk, then they shouldn’t go out,” Andrew declares. “We’re not responsible for other people’s health.”)
But Andrew, who views himself as an incidental villain and accidental activist, is deeply, deeply worried about the Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are denying the vaccine. About how non-unionized amateurs could lose their careers as athletes — and as soldiers. About how his family says they received an email — “get vaccinated or else, in a very friendly way” — from USA Swimming last month, warning that mandates could force him out of international competition this year. (A spokesperson for USA Swimming insists that Andrew is not being “forced out.”) He has serious concerns about how religious exemptions might be ignored when they should be encouraged. About even more ominous and unproven theories.
“I don’t wanna be one of the rats in the lab,” Andrew says. “Fast-forward to now, and there’s some scary things happening in the sporting world.”
He’s referring to a video that went viral last month. Originally published by the anti-vax misinformation clearinghouse The HighWire, which has been banned by Facebook, the context-free local-news supercut is like SportsCenter for fake news. It suggestively warps through stories of more than 50 athletes collapsing on the field, heart-beating orchestral soundtrack and all — even though many of the incidents had nothing to do with Covid whatsoever.
One of the stories mentioned in the disinformation highlight reel is that of Kjeld Nuis, the reigning gold medalist and world-record holder in 1,500-meter speed-skating, who became sick after receiving his Pfizer vaccine in July. “It made me feel really fucked-up,” the Dutch superstar recalls over the phone with Rolling Stone from the European Championships in Heerenveen.
While suffering the effects of an inflamed pericardium, Nuis posted a hospital-bed photo on Instagram, next to one of him recovered and chilling topless at training camp. The heart condition — as with myocarditis, made notorious by conspiracy theorists — has been found to present extremely rare complications from the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines; credible health experts maintain that immunization’s benefits far outweigh such risks.
So when Nuis first saw the fake-news clip, he felt used, but also confused. “Those anti-vaxxers said, ‘You see?! It’s poison! In a healthy guy, and a champion, it made him sick! It made him almost die!’ Well, that was pretty ridiculous. It did not make me almost die,” Nuis says. “But if you really think it’s poison, of course you’re going to say, ‘You see? There’s another one!’ Let ’em think like that. Man, that’s how war starts.”
Nuis respects the personal choice of vaccination, even if he thinks people whose healthy bodies are their profession should do what their doctors say. He says he’d tell Djokovic that his body’s reaction to the vaccine had been a case of bad luck and timing. Djokovic, unrelenting, will likely not be allowed to play in the French Open or perhaps even the U.S. Open if he remains unvaccinated. Fully boosted, Nuis is the odds-on favorite to repeat for gold on the speed-skating track. “I want to be at the Olympics so bad, that even if I didn’t want to take the vaccine,” he says, “I’d take it anyway.”
If Josh Hargis is the Novak Djokovic of Team USA — denied entry into a foreign land despite his best efforts of paperwork and principle — then Patrizia Kummer is almost like the Kyrie Irving of the Winter Games right now: She is sitting around, jabless, waiting to compete on the road.
The Swiss snowboarder may have won gold in 2014, but she did stay at a Holiday Inn Express in Beijing last night. And she’s still got 11 nights of solitary confinement ahead of her. Because as far as Kummer knows, she is the only one of more than 2,000 athletes at the 2022 Olympics to have signed up for 21 days locked in hotel quarantine instead of rolling up her sleeve for a life-saving vaccine.
Kummer wakes around 6 a.m., meditates, and eats room service at 7:30 before a heavy, active training session. In her room, Kummer has two yoga mats, dumbbells, a bike, and a balance board. She juggles. A biology textbook sits on a desk for online classes, when she’s not re-doing the website for her bed-and-breakfast back home, or overseeing the renovations on a 15th-century building from abroad. “I don’t miss the snow that much,” she says. “And when I’m not feeling like working, Netflix is working, too.”
Yes, Kummer will wear a mask when she is permitted outside again next month, and she does not, as Hargis does, see the three-week isolation imposed by the Chinese and the IOC as “purely punitive.” The only successful vaccine-denier at the Olympics refuses to publicly discuss her rationale — “I’m not doing the vaccine, because why should I?” — and when Rolling Stone asked on Thursday if her personal decision on a global stage might be co-opted as a symbol of resistance in a public-health crisis, Kummer said she’d come to Beijing for the medal stand, not a soapbox.
“I never saw me as, like, a freedom-fighter or anything,” Kummer maintains. “For me, personally, it’s really important that nobody is telling anybody else what they have to do with their bodies…. I think it’s really dangerous.”
The other day, Kummer challenged the Austrian snowboarder Claudia Riegler to a 45-minute workout on YouTube. “I would have loved to do quarantine with her next door,” Kummer says of her friend, who has also refused vaccination through qualifiers this week. But Team Austria has a vaccine mandate, so it would appear that Riegler’s country will give up her Olympic roster slot entirely.
Alas, the lone quarantiner feels protected by the Swedes. She feels that sports should not be politicized. And she is feeling the freedom of that free monastic life. “I’m a minimalist,” Kummer says. “I just want to relax and enjoy it here, because other people are spending, like, a lot of money to go to China to go to a temple and say no words for like 21 days. So I can be here and have that experience.”
Perhaps there won’t be any comparable crusader to Djokovic at next month’s Olympics, nor anti-maskers permitted inside China’s super-bubble known as “the closed loop.” But in the middle of the Winter Games, the CDC-denying Rodgers could win the NFL MVP on Super Bowl weekend, re-normalized after losing the appeal for a medical exemption he’d filed with a 500-page makeshift textbook of his own research. Irving, who successfully convinced his team to let him play 22 away games for $19 million, suggested again this week that he could be “a beacon of hope and light” for “people getting fired for being unvaccinated.”
But there will be an athlete in Beijing like Megan Henry, the American skeleton racer who’s expected to compete for gold. In 2014, doctors discovered that a birth-control product had contributed to blood clots in her lungs. Facing both a rare risk of recurrence from the vaccine as well as a possible Olympic mandate on the horizon, and having gotten Covid already in August 2020, Henry says she was initially hesitant when Covid vaccines rolled out last year. “If people have pre-existing conditions, I do think that they should not be forced to do something like that,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Except Henry already works as a military intelligence officer with the U.S. Army, which has reprimanded more than 2,700 soldiers for refusing to comply with a vaccine mandate passed by Congress last month and was expected to begin honorably discharging them this winter. Henry thinks amateur athletes — especially those who would choose to deny a vaccine — will always struggle to take on the system. “Realistically, I wouldn’t be able to be competing for the Olympic Games if I decided to do that,” she says. “I would also lose my job.”
Henry got her first shot last March. This month, when a teammate tested positive at a qualifying event in Germany, she found the U.S. Olympic mandate to be a relief: The teammate was her hotel roommate.
The U.S. Sled National Team held tryouts in July, although Josh Hargis felt like coaches were putting off final roster decisions for Beijing until it became clear whether he — and what he recalls as three other unvaccinated players in the pool of potential Paralympians — would be able to compete. The Chinese were already cracking down. The International Olympic Committee, though, appeared to be leaving the door open for countries to decide their own vaccine policies.
“We were kinda struggling with being treated equally with the other players on the team that were vaccinated,” Hargis says. “Nothing was written down or nothing was said explicitly, but you could feel the pressure from the team, from the other players, from the coaching staff that we, as the unvaccinated players, were just creating an issue that didn’t need to be an issue. It was the ‘Why don’t you guys just go and do it?’ kind of thing. ‘Do it for the team.’” (None of seven other players on the sled-hockey roster contacted for this story responded to messages from Rolling Stone; USA Hockey refused to make the team’s coach or general manager available for interviews.)
As soon as the USOPC took a global lead on September 22 by requiring full vaccination or approved exemption within five-and-a-half weeks, Hargis says, “we started getting some real pressure from the staff.” Two other players suddenly opted for the jab, he recalls, leaving himself and the other apparently unvaccinated teammate at risk of making the team, to say nothing of contracting the virus.
The IOC unveiled its initial Covid playbook for Beijing a week later, but Hargis found it “deceptive”: Could you just suck it up and quarantine? Or could you skip over the Holiday Inn and keep training under the guise of a doctor’s note? Was religious absolution even possible with the geopolitical recriminations involved? In China? But his perception that coaches wanted him to “either get it or you’re done,” over the course of a single weekend, had given way to extra time for Hargis, a devout Christian, to sort out his exemption application. He would wait to open more links.
Hargis claims to have kept extensive correspondence with USA Hockey and USOPC officials over the course of last fall; asked by Rolling Stone to provide corroboration of his claims after an extensive interview earlier this month, Hargis did not respond to numerous requests for further comment or clarification. But he admitted in the interview that he had helped to instigate a “heated and emotional” conversation with his coach at a training camp in late October, concerning both the team’s season on the ice and the internal divide that Hargis perceived over the mandate. The paperwork had dragged out, and he would not budge. On Nov. 4, RS has independently confirmed, the sled-hockey roster dropped two players. Hargis was told that his performance was not quite gold enough; he wouldn’t be receiving an invitation to his first Paralympics.
“Every sacrifice, the hard work,” Hargis says, “all of that was to get to that Paralympic dream, and after earning that… it’s just taken away because I was unwilling to potentially risk my personal health.”
The next morning, Hargis says, he received an email informing him — a day late and a Beijing financial bonus short — that his religious exemption had been approved.
A senior U.S. Olympic official tells Rolling Stone that not a single medical or religious exemption has been filed for an American athlete trying to compete unvaccinated in the 2022 Olympic Games beginning on Feb. 4; numbers for March’s Paralympics are unavailable, the official says. Citing a tangled web of international privacy laws, the IOC declined to confirm whether any unvaccinated competitors had passed muster with its independent review board, but noted that the Olympic Committee considers very few people even worthy of an independent review for medical exemption. Another U.S. Sled National Team player, whom Hargis says was unvaccinated but could not be reached by RS, opted out of Beijing before the roster was finalized on Nov. 29.
Undeterred, Hargis DM’d his fellow vaccine deniers from the Zoom call — and Michael Andrew was one of the first to respond. The two shared a deep faith and figured, at the very least, that religious exemptions could become more normalized in stateside competition for Olympic and Paralympic sports. Otherwise, Andrew says, “you start to then infringe upon certain amendments that are put forward for us as Americans.”
They worked with Hargis’s wife to draft a form letter, making their case in opposition to a vaccine mandate: The American talent pool would inherently diminish, they believed, and perceptions of the Team USA value system could be denigrated. Hargis and Andrew asked all manner of Olympians and Paralympians to copy, paste, sign their name, and pass it onto the USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council, an internal advocacy group. Hargas believed his resistance could become something of a battalion for the no-vax voiceless. But their group turned out to be more like a 10-man patrol unit. “I don’t think we really got a large number of athletes involved, and it was something that over time just had dwindled,” Andrew acknowledges. “It sucks that we didn’t get a whole lotta traction with that — I’m not gonna create any change on my own.”
Hargis has been inspired by Irving’s NBA protest of a law requiring entertainers to be vaccinated in New York. “But the biggest difference between an athlete like that and someone like me,” he says, “is money. Look at how much money he brings to his organization and how much that organization has the potential to lose. And then also he has his teammates on his side to advocate for him, and from my experience, we didn’t have that.”
Rashad Evans, the mixed-martial arts superstar who believes vaccines are “dangerous,” got a DM from Hargis, too, and encouraged him to fight on: “You may not be able to make the financial gains, but at least you have your life,” Evans recalls in an interview with Rolling Stone ridden with scientific falsehoods.
In the encrypted chats and often conspiratorial communities of Telegram, Evans says he texts regularly with an array of amateur and professional athletes who resist or regret taking vaccines to play. “I think there’s room for this kind of silent majority to be heard, because at the end of the day, this silent majority is a vast number of people,” Evans says, utilizing a term invoked by Nixon and Trump. “There’s a lot of people who are staying silent on this topic because they’re just trying to go along with the get-along — it’s a huge majority, with a lot of athletes at a really high level.”
As a last-chance effort, Hargis connected with Brad Snyder, a six-time Paralympic gold medalist who also stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and who, in his capacity as a board member of the USOPC’s advisory group, has counseled several members of Team USA voicing their vaccine hesitancy. Hargis says he was told that his uprising had not “met a threshold of concern.” Snyder disputes this: “They’re not a silent minority,” he tells RS. “Their perspective was heard, and their perspective was duly considered, and every time that there has been a meeting on this particular subject, there’s been an open forum on feedback.”
In his capacity as an activist athlete, Snyder equates the sporting world’s internecine shadow battle over vaccines as part of a broader conflict between revolution and evolution. For him and other athlete advocates inside the system, this is not a scandal like the mega-millionaires Irving and Djokovic holding out until they’re permitted to play so much as reality setting in, for the occasionally far-out.
“It’s much easier for Kyrie or Djokovic to do it,” he says. “In conversations that I’ve had with folks who are making a principled stand, I’ve conveyed that I respect a principled stand. What I disagreed with was the narrative that their dream was being taken away from them based on the mandate policy — when you’re faced with a choice of this mandate or these protocols, it’s kind of a lose-lose.”
“So, yeah, Josh Hargis is fighting an uphill battle because there aren’t a lot of folks who are either willing to make the principled stand or feel as strongly as he and the other athletes,” Snyder continues. “It’s easier to stand on the outside — to sort of lob complaints, to say the system’s broken — and burn the house down, than to fix it. That’s easier. What’s really harder is to get inside and figure it out.”