Canada a leader for Olympic community during frightening, uncertain times

Catharine Pendrel was playing with her 18-month-old springer spaniel Mingus when the three-time Olympian got an email notifying her that she won’t be competing for Canada in Tokyo this summer.

It was nothing personal.

The mountain biker was on a group email was sent out by Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission for the Summer Games, letting Canadian athletes know that the Canadian Olympic Committee was putting all of their Olympic dreams on hold — and possibly at risk — depending on what the International Olympic Committee decides with regard to holding the Games as planned beginning July 24.

In an unprecedented move the COC and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) announced that even if the Games went forward Canada would not be sending a team, while urging the IOC to postpone the world’s largest sporting event until the summer of 2021 as the globe tries to wrestle with the fallout caused by COVID-19, the pandemic that has brought so many countries — Canada among them — to a virtual halt.

Before Canada ever stood on a podium in Tokyo, they were first:

“While we recognize the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community,” the COC and CPC said in a release that came out about 9:30 EST Sunday night.

“This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health. With COVID-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training towards these Games. In fact, it runs counter to the public health advice which we urge all Canadians to follow.”

It was the boldest move yet to put pressure on the IOC where calls to postpone the Games have been mounting in growing increments for the past week, with the powerhouse USA swimming and track federations calling for a postponement and World Athletics president Sebastian Coe — in a private email obtained by the CBC — telling IOC president Thomas Bach that holding the Olympics as planned is “neither feasible or desirable.”

Canada wasn’t alone in their stance for long.

Minutes later, the Australian Olympic Committee sent a similar message saying, “The AOC held an Executive Board meeting via teleconference this morning [Monday morning in Australia] and unanimously agreed that an Australian Team could not be assembled in the changing circumstances at home and abroad.”

Questions about the wisdom of holding a massive international event expected to attract 600,000 visitors and 11,000 athletes from around the world even as the spread of the deadly virus has yet be contained have been mounting for weeks, but the news of Canada’s bold stance still hit hard, even though a COC spokesman said input was taken from the various national sports federations and the athletes committee.

“I was more sad than I thought,” said Pendrel from her home in Kamloops, B.C. “You knew this could happen but Canada taking the stance of, ‘Even if the Olympics happen this year, we won’t be going,’ it was like, ‘Ooh! OK.’

“But I feel like Canada sends a large enough contingent that the world would respond to that and I think other nations will support us with that, so I think you will see the Games happen next year, not this year, that’s my feeling … but it does break your heart a little bit.”

Could Canada end up out on a limb? Keeping their team home even as the Games go one, dashing Canadian athletes’ dreams, rather than delaying them?

It seems unlikely as the obstacles to safely holding the games mount.

The move came as the IOC finally allowed for the possibility that they could consider an alternative to hosting the games from July 24-Aug. 9, something they’d been steadfastly holding to in recent weeks as concerns about the pandemic mounted. On Sunday morning the IOC announced that they would make a determination about the games in four weeks, but that wasn’t enough for Canada and Australia, with the likelihood that other national federations will follow suit.

With some smaller federations taking the lead it seems that it could pave the way from some of the bigger players to tip the balance. If the U.S. Olympic Committee and their counterparts in Germany, the U.K. and Russia take a stance, it’s hard to imagine the Games not being held on schedule for the first time since World War II mothballed the summer and winter Olympics in 1940 and 1944.

The Games have never been postponed but if they are Canada will be shown to have been helping lead the charge.

Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Last week Canadian Olympic hockey hero Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC’s athlete’s committee, put the organization on blast for being so adamant about holding the games as planned, calling the Swiss-based organization’s intransigence “insensitive and irresponsible, given the state of humanity.”

Other voices have been heard since and now question is whether the IOC will listen — or perhaps more accurately — how can they not?

For Canadian athletes, they at least can have the peace of mind that they don’t have to risk their health or the well-being of those around them in order to continue to train for the Games this summer or compete for a spot well before that.

Nearly half of the spots in the Games — 43 per cent — have yet to be determined by qualifying, putting many athletes under even more pressure.

Pendrel needed to earn her Olympic spot in a World Cup race on May 24 in the Czech Republic. Reid Coolsaet is still training to run a qualifying time at the Prague Marathon on May 3, but wasn’t sure if the race would happen, what would happen if it was postponed or even if the Games would go on if he did qualify. Now, at least, some certainty.

“I didn’t see it coming at all — there were people asking for it, but when the IOC said they were going to make a decision in a month, one way or another, I was happy to hear that because it gave me something,” he said. “But there were a lot of athletes saying, ‘What do we do for the next month? Do we keep training for the Olympics?

“But I think other countries will follow … if this can be the catalyst to make change and have the Olympics at a time it can actually happen, I think once everyone gets over the initial disappointment of having the Olympics this summer, everything will fall into place much easier and people will be able to plan properly.”

There were some frustrated voices. Sage Watson, a 400-metre hurdler has been home self-quarantining on her family’s ranch outside Medicine Hat, Alberta and felt the decision was premature — a view she posted on Twitter. 

Reached by phone, Watson said she wasn’t opposed to the possibility of the Olympics being postponed but felt that the COC coming out first was ill-timed.

“I just think the decision should be made by the IOC as a whole, with all the nations having a voice,” she said. “I’m just a little sad Canada is making the decision for us.”

But another view is that’s exactly what was needed in uncertain and frightening times.

Athletes have a long history of putting their Olympic dreams above almost anything and pushing through any obstacle, maybe even a global pandemic. Expecting them to make sound decisions about their well-being heading into what are — in many cases — the most vital months of their career may be an unfair burden.

Now it’s out of their hands.

“I think having leadership is incredibly important right now,” says Pendrel. “It takes leadership from the highest levels to make those decisions because organizers and athletes are too invested in their goals that it’s really hard to make that decision, so the leadership has to make that decision easier for everyone.”

The hope is that the 2020 Olympic dream is postponed just for now, not forever.

“As athletes we’ll be upset but we’ll refocus and adapt,” Pendrel says. “We’re pretty good planners. If you give us a new date, we’ll focus on that.”