Skip to main content

Damian Warner, of Canada, waves a flag during the closing ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 8 in Tokyo.David Goldman/The Associated Press

Leaving an Olympics is often a muddled jumble of intense emotions.

There’s the pride or devastation from competition, mixing in a weird cocktail with the feelings about leaving fellow athletes, and flying home to reunite with family, friends and real life.

At the Tokyo Olympics, heavily restricted by pandemic protocols as Japan grapples with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, those departures were even more complicated – logistically and emotionally.

As athletes finished competing in Tokyo, they weren’t permitted to stick around extra days to celebrate, see Japan, or attend other events at the Games. Athletes could arrive only five days before competing and had to depart within 48 hours of finishing. The Canadian Olympic Committee preferred its athletes and staff leave within 24 hours when possible. They were whisked off hurriedly – many from a Games that was still in full swing. The last 200 Canadian participants were to leave Tokyo on Monday – the biggest departure day of the Games.

Athletes were tested regularly in Tokyo, and had to produce a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight back to Canada. Although quarantine wasn’t required in Canada for fully vaccinated citizens returning, some athletes chose to isolate at home anyway, or do a secondary test before seeing family, especially unvaccinated kids.

As the COC worked to get athletes out of Tokyo during the Games, they navigated ever-changing rules about what kind of testing athletes needed to depart. Some athletes were travelling to countries other than Canada, and the testing is different for each country. It was the COC’s top priority to get every person home COVID-free. As of Sunday, the COC said there were zero cases of COVID-19 among the 840-member Team Canada delegation.

After earning their bronze medals earlier in the Olympics, players on the Canadian women’s softball team stayed up until the wee hours, savouring the fleeting time they had together at this single Games for their sport before having to leave each other.

Each woman had left home three months earlier to do their final training as a team. Softball had popped back onto the Olympic program for the first time in 13 years, but just for Tokyo. Finally stepping on the podium together and draping medals around one another was absolute bliss, the end of a long road. Afterward, they gathered – medals still swinging – at the athletes’ village at 1 a.m. for a final meal together. They had the cafeteria mostly to themselves. Many outlasted sunrise, autographing items for each other and making sentimental speeches. Then they packed to fly to their North American homes.

“It was mentally draining; we left everything on that field,” pitcher Jenna Caira said by phone after arriving home in Toronto. “The pandemic is bigger than all of us. We got to make our dreams come true. So if that means we have to leave the next day, we were okay with that.”

Caira was anxious to see all of her family, and waved to some as they did an initial drive-by just to glimpse her when she first got home. Several days and another negative test later, the bronze-medal pitcher was ready for a big family dinner.

“I just wanted to be as careful as possible” Caira said. “I’m protecting my family. I never wanted to bring something like that home.”

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold had a shorter-than-expected stay in Tokyo. It had taken a drawn-out appeal process with the Court of Arbitration for Sport for her to land a spot in these Olympics. She had been on maternity leave during the 2019 competitions the boxing federation used as qualifying benchmarks when the pandemic wiped out Olympic qualifier events.

She lost her first fight in Tokyo and had to leave immediately. It’s not easy to find a good flight from Japan to Canada on short notice. At first, the COC booked her on one slated for 50 hours of travel through Dubai. At the last minute, theCOC found a quicker, more direct route.

In Rio, she had been able to stay longer after she lost, to cheer on teammates and other athletes.

“Among the athletes, we were kind of joking around that it felt like a reality show and we were getting kicked off the island,” Bujold said with a laugh from her home in Kitchener, Ont. “Once you lost out, it actually felt like, ‘I’m okay to go at this point’ because all of the things that make the Olympics, fun – the team building or being able to interact with other athletes – most of those were taken out of these Games for obvious reasons.”

Wrestler Erica Weibe, the 2016 Olympic champion, also left Tokyo earlier than she had planned after being eliminated in the first round. Unlike in Rio, where she had stayed through the closing ceremony, this time she had the experience of returning home to follow the rest of Canada’s Games on television.

“This Games experience was so unlike everything else, with daily saliva tests, app check-ins, eating between plexiglass shields, and the general constant fear of testing positive,” Weibe said via email as she was travelling home to Calgary. “So the emotions of departing quickly are all wrapped up in the experience of these Games. It was the expectation and honestly, with nothing to do in Tokyo except be in your room masked – it was the right thing.”

Canada’s gold-medal-winning weightlifter, Maude Charron, had an anxious experience at the airport as she left Tokyo shortly after competing and doing a flurry of interviews. Passengers have to get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure, and in the whirlwind of the Games, Charron didn’t realize she had taken her test too early, meaning it had expired and therefore not accepted at the airport in Tokyo for boarding. She raced off to get an express test at the airport and got her negative result just in time to board.

She didn’t get to fly home with any fellow weightlifters, but she did meet Canadian rugby and table tennis players on the plane. Air Canada surprised the gold medalist with cake and popcorn in Vancouver while she waited for her connecting flight to Montreal. She appreciated the gesture, because there wasn’t much time in Tokyo to have the typical post-competition experience that many Olympians enjoy – finally being able to indulge in junk food.

“Of course, I wish to be able to stay longer to watch other sports, and maybe do the closing ceremony since I didn’t participate at the opening one, and this was my first Olympics,” Charron said from her home in Rimouski, Que. “But I understand the rules. They had to control the spread of COVID.”

It’s a long trip for anyone returning to North America, followed by jetlag, but soon, the resumption of regular life.

“I’m looking forward to going home. I’m burnt out, I’m exhausted,” said sprinter Andre De Grasse, who earned two bronze medals and a gold in Tokyo. “I can’t wait to see my family. … Not looking forward to that flight; it’s about like 18 hours to get back or something …. but I’m just happy to go home. I miss my family and my kids and ready to just take it easy and play dad and have fun with them.”

While balancing departures, the COC also had to pack its performance equipment – everything from weight machines to massage tables. Because the next Olympics is just six months away, that shipment is headed by containership directly to Beijing.

The COC has one last important Canadian to get out of Tokyo – the iconic moose statue that travels to each Olympics and stays in the athletes’ village. He was picked up and moved several times – presumably by mischievous Olympians from rival countries.

“We’ve had to hunt down our moose on several occasions,” Marie-Andrée Lessard, the COC’s director of Games, said with a laugh. “It’s been a real challenge to get everyone home, with rules often changing by the hour. It’s been a real puzzle to fit it altogether, but the team is getting home safe.”