The anti-vaccine activist community has been awaiting a truly global superstar to become their standard-bearer, and they appear to have finally found it in Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic.
While NFL stars like Aaron Rodgers, NBA stars like Kyrie Irving, golfers like Bryson DeChambeau, and dozens of Premier League soccer players have all helped boost the anti-vax cause around the globe, Djokovic, the world’s number one tennis player and potentially the greatest player of all time, is arguably the biggest anti-vaxxer in the world right now.
And his efforts to circumvent Australia’s strict vaccination rules have catapulted him into superstardom in the anti-vax community. Within one conspiracy group, which has developed an anti-vax version of Bitcoin called Unvaxxed Sperm, members of the group believe Djokovic could become their new icon.
“Without a doubt, his sperm is the most valuable right now. He’d be a great hero for the movement,” a member of the Unvaxxed Sperm group wrote on Telegram Monday morning, following the announcement that an Australian court had overturned the government’s decision to deport Djokovic.
“Can someone talented make memes about Djokovic as our unvaxxed sperm hero?” another member of the same group asked.
Across Telegram channels, Djokovic was hailed as a hero by those opposed to vaccines.
“Many anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown channels on Telegram are now celebrating the overturning of his Australian visa cancellation as a major victory against vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions and are likely to feel emboldened by the decision, especially since it’s happened in Australia, whose COVID restrictions are seen as particularly authoritarian by these communities,” Nick Backovic, a researcher at AI-powered misinformation tracking group Logically, told VICE News.
One widely shared video being posted across QAnon groups on Telegram features comments from Djokovic’s father, Srđan Djokovic, saying Australian authorities wanted to humiliate his son by placing him in “prison”—when the facility is in fact a quarantine hotel.
Disinformation experts told VICE News that these comments have been interpreted as a call for people to collectively “rise up against world COVID dictatorship,” illustrating how conspiracy and extremist communities are selectively choosing aspects of this story to promote their agenda.
“Across many COVID-skeptic and COVID-conspiracy communities online, Djokovic is being raised up as a hero by those who see him as a champion of sorts for the unvaccinated, including some groups who’ve adopted hashtags like #IStandWithDjokovic,” Aoife Gallagher and Ciaran O’Connor, analysts with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News in an email.
Gallagher and O’Connor also report that Djokovic’s on-court rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are being dragged into the conspiracies because “both attacked” Djokovic over his views. “These communities are now accusing the two tennis stars of being part of a wider conspiracy and working with Bill Gates for unspecified reasons,” Gallagher and O’Connor wrote.
But as usual in the world of conspiracies, there are some who are suggesting this is all some sort of false flag operation, with some conspiracy theorists online becoming suspicious of Djokovic’s actions pointing out that the star’s foundation has an association with the World Economic Forum, which supposedly proves that he’s an “actor” for the “elites.”
The debacle over whether Djokovic would be allowed to defend his Australian Open title began last Wednesday, when the tennis star arrived in the country with a medical exemption to play, despite the tournament’s strict vaccine rules.
But Djokovic’s visa was canceled at the airport after he was detained and questioned for nine hours. He was then taken to a quarantine hotel in Melbourne. His legal team filed an appeal based on the fact that Djokovic had tested positive for COVID in December and as such had a natural immunity. On Monday Federal Circuit Court judge Anthony Kelly overturned the ban, citing the government’s admitted failure to allow Djokovic sufficient time to make his case to the immigration officers at the airport.
The Australian government submitted, however, that Djokovic’s recent infection alone was not sufficient to qualify for a medical exemption, and further noted that the evidence indicated Djokovic “has recovered” and is therefore not entitled to an exemption. But that’s not the end of the saga, as Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke warned that he may personally cancel Djokovic’s visa, with a decision due on Tuesday.
Outside the court, Djokovic’s fans clashed with police, who deployed pepper spray to push back the crowd.
The Australian government’s bungled response to Djokovic’s efforts to circumvent vaccine restrictions has played right into the hands of conspiracy theorists.
“There’s no doubt that the enduring saga and attention it has received has played a role in turning this into something that’s being framed as a ‘COVID safety versus freedom of choice’ battle, when in reality that would be a massive oversimplification of the whole situation,” Backovic added.
While Djokovic’s efforts to get into Australia without a vaccine are the cause of huge media attention around the world, his actions are hardly surprising, given the tennis star’s history of conspiratorial thinking.
When the pandemic first took hold in 2020, Djokovic, who has never publicly confirmed his COVID-19 vaccination status, openly admitted his anti-vaccine stance.
“I am personally against vaccines and I wouldn’t want anyone to force me to take one so I can travel. If this turned out to be a rule and law, what will happen then?” he said in a chat with some other tennis stars in April 2020.
Indeed, he had so little regard for his own safety and that of others that he organized a tennis tournament in Serbia and Georgia in June 2020, months into the global pandemic. It became a superspreader event, with four players including Djokovic contracting COVID-19, as well as his wife, Jelena.
The outbreak was almost inevitable, given no masks were worn and no social distancing was in effect during the event, which concluded with a semi-naked trip to a nightclub.
The world’s top-ranked tennis star was granted a medical exemption for the Australian Open on the basis that he’d tested positive for COVID-19 for a second time on Dec. 16. But the 34-year-old was seen not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing at a ceremony at the Novak Tennis Centre in Belgrade, which took place on Dec. 17. When asked about this at a press conference on Monday, Djokovic’s brother brought the conference to an end.
And Jelena Djokovic appears to share her husband’s conspiratorial thinking, posting a message on Instagram this week that suggested the rollout of 5G was somehow responsible for the spread of the virus—a years-old conspiracy theory that’s been thoroughly debunked.
But even before COVID came along, Djokovic had a history of spouting anti-science opinions.
“You have this thing called telepathy, right? Or this thing called telekinesis, or instinct, intuition. I feel like [these] are the gifts from this higher order, the source, the god, whatever, that allows us to understand the higher power and higher order in ourselves,” he told Shortlist magazine in 2018.
During lockdown, Djokovic spent some of his time publishing a web series called “The Self Mastery Project,” for which he interviewed a series of wellness and self-help figures, many of whom have spread conspiracy theories.
During one show, Djokovic floated the idea that people can change the makeup of food and water with their thoughts and emotions.
“I’ve seen people and I know some people that, through that energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they manage to turn the most toxic food or the most polluted water into the most healing water,” Djokovic said, adding that “because water reacts and scientists have proven that, that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what is being said.”
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