Even though many athletes expected it and wanted it, Canada’s decision to skip the Tokyo Games should they occur in July still came as a shock.
“I didn’t really know what to think,” Kylie Masse, a swimmer who won a bronze medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, said Monday. "I was a bit heartbroken, but at the same time a bit relieved.
“Many athletes plan in quadrennials, [and] our lives are shaped around the Olympic Games, so it’s hard to kind of think about it all. But rightfully so, it was a decision that needed to be made.”
In a shot heard around the sporting world, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees said late Sunday that team members will not participate unless the Summer Games are delayed, because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Australia’s Olympic Committee quickly followed, as did Norway’s – all while the International Olympic Committee officials continued to delay a decision to postpone the event. On Tuesday morning the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the IOC had agreed to a proposal of postponing the Olympics.
COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has claimed more than 15,000 lives around the world. There is no vaccine to prevent it, and while it shares symptoms with the flu, it is far more dangerous.
When the Canadians received a news release from the IOC on Sunday saying that a decision could take four more weeks, the athletes felt it was time to act.
“We were already hearing stories of athletes who should be isolating feeling like they need to keep training, and they were trying to train in small groups but a group of two was turning into a group of 10," said Seyi Smith, an Olympian in both sprinting and bobsled who chairs the the Canadian Olympic Athletes’ Commission. "It was very, very dangerous.
“We wanted to send a clear message that you need to be a citizen before being an athlete right now. The IOC wasn’t making the decision, so we made the decision to do something that was very difficult. Nobody wants this, but how can you argue against saving lives? We all really love sport, but this is bigger than sport.”
Smith said several Canadian athletes who already qualified for Tokyo and are medal contenders spoke up in conference calls leading to the decision – including soccer player Diana Matheson, trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, field-hockey player Mark Pearson and beach volleyball player Melissa Humana-Paredes. They knew postponing a year would be hard; some athletes plan to retire after Tokyo, have jobs lined up, or plan to start a family.
But how could they train when they are supposed to stay home to help slow the spread of the virus?
“The athletes were at the height of this decision, because they shouldn’t have to choose between their Olympic or Paralympic dreams and their health and safety,” said Stephanie Dixon, chef de mission for Canada’s Tokyo Canadian Paralympic Team. She is a three-time swimmer at the Paralympics. “Encouraging our athletes to keep preparing to compete this summer was not ethical or responsible.
"We hope [Olympic officials] realize they are continuing to put athletes around the world in that position right now, and it’s not fair. I truly hope they will make the right decision and postpone the Games.”
Perhaps prompted by the sudden backlash from international athletes, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conceded on Monday for the first time that it might be necessary to delay the Tokyo Games.
Long-time IOC member Dick Pound of Montreal expects the start to be pushed back.
“We’re all reading the tea leaves and so on, but the Japanese themselves are talking about postponing," he told The Canadian Press.
In Ottawa on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s Olympians had his support.
“I know this is heartbreaking for so many people, but this was absolutely the right call, and everyone should follow their lead,” Mr. Trudeau said in an address from outside his residence at Rideau Hall.
The Prime Minister again asked citizens to practise social distancing.
“We all have a role to play,” he said. “You can save lives by staying home. You can make a difference.”
As he spoke, Labatt Breweries began to manufacture hand sanitizer and a border check point had been established between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Later, Ontario and Quebec declared that non-essential businesses would be commanded to shut down, and Prince Edward Island announced $1,000 fines would be imposed on people who are not self-isolating.
“I want Islanders to listen and protect one another,” said Dr. Heather Morrison, PEI’s Chief Health Officer.
On Friday, USA Swimming and USA Track and Field sent letters to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees in favour of a postponement. On Sunday, each called for Summer Games to be delayed until 2021.
In Washington, however, President Donald Trump said Monday that the United States would follow direction from Japan.
“We will be guided by the wishes of Prime Minister Abe, a great friend of the United States and a man who has done a magnificent job on the Olympic venue,” the President said on Twitter.
In Toronto, Glen Grunwald, the president and chief executive of Canada Basketball, joined others in supporting the COC’s position. Australia has told its athletes to prepare for the Games to be delayed until next year.
“Our athletes are considered by many to be role models and to put them in an unfair position to ask them to continue training and preparing for the Games sends the wrong message to all Canadians," Grunwald said in a statement. "Basketball, and sport in general, has an ability to bring people together and when it is safe to do so, we will use the power of our game to help heal our communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast.”
Canada’s swimmers were at the centre of the debate over whether the team should pull out of the Olympics once pools started shutting down.
The inability to train and the need for athletes to follow the government’s instructions to self-isolate to slow the virus made the decision unavoidable, said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high-performance director.
“You come to that conclusion eventually, that this is bigger than sport,” he said. “When you look at how serious things are in Europe, and whole nations under lockdown and the suffering of people, it really goes beyond what sport is.”
In the face of pools closing down, some swimmers resorted to unorthodox tactics in recent weeks, fearing that they would have to find a way to stay competitive if the Games went ahead in July.
Masse, who swims at the University of Toronto, resorted to skipping rope outdoors and cycling at home. She did whatever she could to stay in shape while also isolating herself.
“That’s something that’s so tough with swimming. … We need a pool,” she said. “And there’s very few ways that you can replicate swimming outside of [one]. You lose the feel for the water after a couple of days.”
At first, the closing of her training facility afforded a rest and a chance to recharge, but that soon turned to stress. She worried Canadian swimmers might fall behind those from other countries.
“I definitely felt pressure, because some of the world was still training full-force and the Olympic Committee was still saying there’s no postponement or anything," Masse said. “I felt that I needed to get back to do anything I could do to maintain some fitness and to stay active. I wanted to be ready if I needed to be."
When her training facility closed, medal contender Taylor Ruck, whose family now lives in Arizona, resorted to swimming at a community pool half the length and a few degrees warmer than the pools that Olympians train in. But that closed, too, and she began looking around for private pools before eventually isolating herself and focusing on solo training runs.
“I could kind of see the Olympics being postponed, but I didn’t know Canada was going to be the first one to put the foot down,” Ruck said. “But honestly with everything going on, I think it’s in the best interests of the athletes and their health."
Canadians were expected to tune in en masse for Andre DeGrasse’s races in Tokyo. The then-21-year-old from the Toronto area won three medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro – bronzes in the 100 metres and the 4×100-metre relay, and a silver in the 200 metres, where he finished just behind Usain Bolt.
DeGrasse shared on-track smiles and hugs with the retiring Jamaican legend, providing one of the most indelible images of the Rio Games. As Bolt stepped away, he expressed his respect for the young Canadian.
DeGrasse had solid results at the 2019 world championships, which had him excited about this summer’s Olympics. He said training had been going well for him in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Up until this morning, I’ve been doing the best job I could training on a grass soccer field after our regular training facilities were closed down," DeGrasse said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "I’ve been feeling anxious going about my business of training when so much of the world has been under quarantine.
"On one hand I need to stay at home with my family and on the other, I need to keep training.”
DeGrasse said he will soon sit down with his coach to re-evaluate training plans.
“I woke up this morning with some mixed emotions hearing about Canada’s decision to pull out of the Games, if they were to be held as scheduled,” he said. “It was a bold move.”
Masse, who set the world record in the 100-metre backstroke in 2017, said she hopes to use the extra time to her advantage once things return to normal. Her record has since been eclipsed, but she remains one of Canada’s contenders for Olympic gold.
“Optimistically I can use this year to improve on things or fix things that I may have done wrong this last year," she said. "I’ll take this extra time to be better and try to get faster.”
Ruck, who at 19 is one of Canada’s youngest returning Olympians, said the same.
“That’s an extra year to train and push yourself to try and get medals," she said.
She worries, though, that older athletes who were planning to retire after one more shot at a medal may be unable to compete.
“That’s kind of heartbreaking to me, because oh my gosh they have worked so hard to have this happen,” Ruck said.