Catriona Le May Doan is headed to her 11th Olympics, but even for this veteran the Beijing Games will be something entirely unique.
Inside a bubble, under the strictest of COVID-19 protocols, the two-time Olympic champion speedskater will join Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics in a role she has long wanted to play: its chef de mission.
It’s a wide-reaching volunteer role given to a well-respected former Canadian Olympian at each Games. It melds being a team spokesperson and mentor, a cheerleader and confidante – to support the athletes however possible.
Le May Doan competed in four Olympics in long track from 1992 to 2002 – earning a bronze and two gold medals. She worked at five Games as a broadcaster, then was an athlete mentor on the COC’s mission team at two more.
“It’s been a dream of mine,” Le May Doan said of the chef de mission role. “I made a deal with myself that I would get my Olympic rings tattoo if I was ever chef. So I just got it at 60 days out.”
In her previous stints on the mission team – most recently for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – there were pre-Games visits of the host site to prepare for what the athletes might need. Because of the pandemic, she had no site visit to Beijing.
As an Olympian, Le May Doan recalls drawing on support from Canada’s chef de mission Sally Rehorick before competing in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where just months after the 9/11 attacks, tremendous fears hung over the Games. Plus Le May Doan’s team was experiencing internal conflicts, and she felt enormous pressure to repeat as Olympic champion.
These Games carry their own unique tensions for participants. Several countries – including Canada – have joined a United States-led diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games due to human rights concerns in China. There were cries from around the world to postpone, given the rising cases of COVID-19, largely due to the Omicron variant. The Games zoom ever closer now, and the International Olympic Committee and Chinese authorities stress that plans remain on track.
“Well, we’re under 30 days out from the opening ceremonies now, and we leave in less than three weeks,” Le May Doan said by phone Thursday. “So let’s focus on: the Games are happening, and we are going to be prepared, and we’re going to arrive there and be a strong and cohesive team.”
Athletes and the Canadian Olympic Committee have faced plenty of questions about whether they too should boycott.
“All along it has been the Canadian Olympic Committee’s message that boycotts don’t work,” Le May Doan said. “We can’t avoid the situation but let’s amplify the conversation by being there, let’s amplify that conversation by representing our Canadian values.”
Some athletes, media and other Games participants have already started to arrive in Beijing, with the rest expected later this month ahead of the Feb. 3 start. The “closed loop” bubble has already begun to operate, sealing in the Olympic venues and hotels, connected by Games-exclusive transportation. All participants will remain in the bubble, from the moment they land until they leave China.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine upon arrival. Inside, everyone will be tested daily and must wear face masks. A positive test soon before or during the Games could ruin an athlete’s chance to compete.
This week, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach urged diligence now for all attending, even before they travel, to keep COVID out and athletes on course to compete.
“Beijing starts now for all of us,” he said. “We must do everything to ensure that the Olympic dreams of athletes are not taken away just days before departure.”
The pandemic has complicated the preparations for athletes in countless ways, including Canada, where some regions have returned to lockdowns.
Canada’s figure skating Olympic trials are taking place this weekend in Ottawa, but under strict protocols, with no fans attending, and media covering virtually. Skaters will do their best to dodge the virus while trying to earn spots on the Olympic team, scheduled to be named on Sunday.
The Canadian women’s hockey team cancelled its last batch of pre-Olympic tune-up games, including its final two Rivalry Series contests versus the U.S. women.
Canada’s mixed curling trials, scheduled for Dec. 28-Jan. 2 in Portage la Prairie, Man., were cancelled, and now Curling Canada must find a different way to choose the man and woman who will represent the country in that discipline in Beijing. That has several top Canadian curlers anxiously awaiting news and pontificating about how the decision should be made.
Canada’s bobsleigh team had 11 athletes and three staff members in COVID protocols last week in Latvia following an outbreak.
Mikael Kingsbury, the most decorated moguls skier of all time, earned an astounding 69th career World Cup victory on Friday at Mont Tremblant in his home province of Quebec – which normally would have drawn a big crowd had spectators been allowed. Set to defend his gold medal in Beijing, he said he scaled down his usual Christmas plans back home, has been staying in his own bubble, seeing few other than his coach. The star skier stressed he’ll be very cautious travelling to the U.S and back to compete before he flies to China.
“Once I’m in China, I feel like everyone’s going to be under millions of tests, so it should be less stressful once you’re there,” Kingsbury said.
Le May Doan attended a couple of Canadian events in person late in 2021. She awarded jackets to Team Canada’s first athletes to officially qualify – it’s men’s and women’s curling teams. A mother of two sport-playing teenagers now, and president and CEO of Sport Calgary, Le May Doan draws from a lifetime of experiences in the role.
Le May Doan has been sending all Canadian athletes monthly e-mails before this complex Olympics. Despite all the noise, the restrictions, the pressures, she reminds them they could still shine in Beijing doing what they do best. As she always reminded herself before racing her signature 500-metre race around a 400-metre oval, the field of play will remain the same no matter where one competes.
“Regardless of what is going on in our world, or in our lives,” Le May Doan said. “These are the Olympic Games, and this is what so many of us have dreamed about.”