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This article is the third and final piece in a special series that explores how Canadian sport leaders are adapting and innovating to safeguard the well-being of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major games during a global pandemic. Don’t miss the first and second articles in the series!


Across multiple issues, on diverse platforms, high performance athletes are exercising greater influence on decision making than ever before.

AthletesCAN logo

“There is a moment when everybody recognizes that something significant needs to be done and that we simply have to get it right,” says Dasha Peregoudova who recently completed her term as President of AthletesCAN. “What I find most encouraging is the pivotal role that athlete leaders are playing in the decision-making process. Sport leaders have come to recognize that athletes are the experiential experts. Better than anyone else, we can bring that vital ‘field of play’ perspective to the table.”

With increasing regularity and consistency, athlete opinions are being factored into key policy and program decisions on a growing list of priorities that includes safe sport, anti-doping, diversity and inclusion, gender equity, the March 2020 withdrawal of Team Canada from the Tokyo Games, and the rightful place for protest at an Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Regarding Tokyo, athlete health and wellbeing emerged as the pivotal factor in the decision to withdraw from competition. Technical and medical experts agreed it would be unreasonable to expect athletes to grapple with the risks and uncertainly of training and competing in the midst of a global health pandemic. But the most convincing voices around the decision-making table were those of the athletes themselves.

Shifting landscapes

“I have to take my hat off to the athlete reps because they helped the rest of us appreciate that putting the athletes first meant that we had no choice but to pull out of Tokyo 2020,” noted Dr. Mike Wilkinson, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). “They shed light on the deliberations that made the final decision to withdraw a ‘no-brainer.’”

Seyi Smith, Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission
Seyi Smith, Former Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission

One of those athlete representatives was Seyi Smith, who served as Chair of the COC’s Athletes’ Commission at the time. A two-time Olympian in Athletics (London 2012) and Bobsleigh (PyeongChang 2018), Smith says the Tokyo decision demonstrates the increasing influence of the athlete voice in Canadian high performance sport.

“There’s a shift happening, for sure, and you can see it around key decisions,” he says. “As athletes, we’re being taken more seriously and senior leaders are asking for our opinions – not because they feel they have to check a box, but because they believe we have something important to bring to the table.”

Smith observes that sport leaders have historically come from one of two camps: the sport administrators who spend years learning the system and working their way up to senior roles; and the business professionals who bring the kind of corporate know-how that’s often missing in the not-for-profit sector.

“The system is only now recognizing that a critical voice has been absent in sport leadership, that a third group – athletes – have to be heard in order to round out those key perspectives that lead to well-informed decisions,” Smith says. “Whether it’s sustainable, whether it will continue to grow, and whether we’re able to use this influence to create lasting change, that’s still to be determined.”

Decades in the making

For pioneers in athlete advocacy, theirs was a dramatically different environment. Beckie Scott, 2002 Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing and a stalwart in the international anti-doping movement, recalls that when she first got involved in athlete representation, most organizations were happy to engage when it was convenient, and particularly when there was no threat to the larger business interests of sport.

During a September 2020 webinar hosted by SIRC, Scott shared that, “more often than not, athlete commissions and athlete committees were not set up to succeed. They were often reduced to being mouthpieces or puppets of organizations, and truly effective and meaningful athlete engagement wasn’t a priority.”

Experts in the House webinar with Beckie Scott: Politics vs Principle

Undeterred, Scott has devoted years to a crusade for clean sport. Allied with passionate counterparts from other countries, their work has exposed the persistent practices of drug cheats and the inability or unwillingness of international sport leaders to fix the kind of systemic cheating that sullied the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and created an international firestorm that is still simmering today.

Scott is arguably one of the best-known Canadian advocates in sport, but would be the first to acknowledge that she is one of many homegrown athletes who have contributed to a decades-long campaign for change.

The role of institutions

In fact, the world’s first independent athlete association was born in Canada. AthletesCAN has been at the forefront of athlete advocacy for almost 30 years and is a well-established contributor to World Players Association (WPA), an international collective of player unions, that is driving change in sport globally as issues become increasingly complex and sophisticated. The WPA brings together 85,000 players across professional sport through more than 100 player associations in over 60 countries.

“There is strength in numbers; strength in learning, understanding, and sharing,” says Peregoudova. “Athlete advocacy is definitely gaining momentum and we’re seeing lots of evidence here in Canada. The emergence of the safe sport movement over the last couple of years is definitely the most visible example of that.”

Building a strong working relationship with the WPA has definitely helped AthletesCAN take its advocacy efforts “to another level,” according to Ashley LaBrie who served as the organization’s Executive Director from March 2015 through to November 2019. “Learning from those who have blazed the path before us in the athlete rights arena really enabled us to identify and seize opportunities more effectively to push athlete-centered priorities to the forefront of the conversation. When stories of athlete abuse took hold of media and public attention, and the federal sport minister announced safe sport a priority in 2018, inviting athletes to speak out; that unlocked a door that we didn’t hesitate to walk through,” she recalls. “AthletesCAN was ready with key athlete leaders, survivors, and a plan for mobilization and athlete engagement to ensure athletes were heard on this important issue.”

At the annual AthletesCAN Forum in September 2018, athlete representatives from more than 50 sports drafted a list of priorities and recommendations around safe sport issues, arguing that Canada needed to establish an independent national body to prevent and address athlete maltreatment.

Efforts to achieve the goal were advanced further in April 2019, when AthletesCAN hosted a two-day summit involving athletes, sport partners, subject matter experts, survivors, and advocates, “…building recommendations around a harmonized (universal) code (of conduct), coach-athlete relationships, and the implementation and accountability for safe sport from A to Z,” as described in the post-event press release. Less than two weeks later, the athlete voices helped advance and deepen discussion and sector commitment, collaborating with senior leaders from national sport and multi-sport service organizations at the National Safe Sport Summit hosted by the Coaching Association of Canada.

“A survey conducted by AthletesCAN in collaboration with the University of Toronto captured the experiences of 1,000 active and retired athletes. The findings painted a really disturbing picture of maltreatment within the Canadian system that simply couldn’t be ignored any longer,” says Allison Forsyth, an AthletesCAN Board member, Olympian, sexual abuse survivor, and safe sport advocate.

“As athletes, a few of us stood up at the CAC’s National Summit to share some very personal stories and to help the sport leaders in the room understand they are all part of a system that let it happen and that we are all part of the solution.”

The Summit produced a series of consensus statements to set the direction for the development of a Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS), which was integrated into the policies of all federally funded sport organizations as of March 31, 2021.

“When given the chance, athletes have an enormous amount of knowledge, passion, and leadership skills to contribute as key stakeholders of sport,” said Peregoudova in an AthletesCAN media release about the April 2019 event. “Every decision making table discussion on the topic of how sport is delivered should echo with the sound of athlete voices and perspectives.”

What’s next?

Champions of athlete advocacy, both past and present, view the future with a mix of optimism, frustration, and concern. But they agree the athlete voice must be heard loud and clear to maintain the momentum built over the last few years.

alpine ski racer in winter

Athletes have more power than they know, according to Beckie Scott, who counsels other athletes to get involved, to “…step into it, embrace it. You have more skin in the game than anyone, So, don’t make the mistake of choosing not to care or choosing to believe that sport has it all figured out and doesn’t need your help or your voice or your contribution.”

Athlete advocates will have ample opportunity to influence decision making on a substantive list of priorities on both the domestic and international sport agendas. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt training and competition for athletes at all levels, and there remain many questions about how organizers will protect the wellbeing of Olympians and Paralympians at the Tokyo Games.

A debate over the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) anti-protest rule will also play itself out around the Tokyo Games. The IOC made the rule stricter in early 2020 by restricting opportunities for athletes to protest. On behalf of the COC’s Athletes’ Commission, Seyi Smith presented a series of recommendations to the international federation to make the case for preserving the field of play for competition and nothing else. At the same time, he maintains there must be opportunities for athletes on the international stage to champion the causes that are important to them, “…just as the NBA has done around Black Lives Matter,” he told the CBC’s Scott Russell during a CBC-TV panel. “They’ve brought a lot of attention to something that … may not have had as much reach. And I don’t think it’s worth risking that by possibly limiting what athletes can and can’t say.”

During the same event, Canadian Olympic decathlete Damian Warner voiced the opinion that there has never been a better time for athletes to speak out on issues that are important to them or the communities they represent. “You see the NBA, the NHL, the NFL, everybody’s kind of making stances, standing up for what they believe in. And I think that’s extremely important as an athlete and I just hope that we’re able to do so at the Olympic Games.” In an international sport environment, he added, there are certain situations where the athlete’s voice is more powerful than their performance.

Sense of optimism

Overall, Smith has mixed feelings about the future of athlete advocacy in Canada. Having recently stepped down as Chair of the COC’s Athletes’ Commission, he expresses optimism about the strength of existing relationships and confidence that the athlete perspective will be prominently placed around the decision-making table at both the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees. He’s less optimistic, however, about what he calls “the institution of athlete representation” in Canadian sport.

“The COC includes us in everything. It’s a lot, but we love it, and we feel valued and engaged,” he says. However, Smith suggests similar opportunities for athlete voice are limited within some national sport organizations. “There remain some systemic issues that leave us vulnerable to being left out of key decisions.”

One of those issues, according to Allison Forsyth, is education and a lack of general understanding amongst today’s high performance athletes. She maintains that athletes have a responsibility to educate themselves and that sport organizations have an obligation to help athletes understand more about the key organizations, how the system works, and how funding decisions are made.

Beyond the need for greater education, AthletesCAN has done a comprehensive evaluation of governance structures within national sport organizations. The resulting position paper, The Future of Athlete Representation within Governance Structures of National Sport Organizations, released in November 2020, offers guiding principles and model bylaws to ensure that the athlete voice is heard.

The report concludes that, “…by including the athlete voice in [national sport organization] decision making and governance, Canadian sport institutions will increase their level of effectiveness and transparency, while promoting democratic ideals. Acts of good faith, inclusivity, and a will for success are all virtues needed for promoting the voice of athletes within Canadian sport governance.”

For Beckie Scott, the future of athlete advocacy rests with sport organizations who must make space at the decision-making table. “Engaging (athletes) and treating them as the important stakeholders that they are will not only be good for the athletes but also good for the viability and the long-term longevity of sport.”

The “win-win” scenario resonates with Dasha Peregoudova as well. She argues that if athletes are involved and given their proper voice, they will perform better. “It works in beautiful ways,” she says. “A key part of athlete success is feeling heard, empowered and respected.”

Peregoudova maintains that Canadian sport is “on the precipice of an unprecedented culture shift.” Essential to that shift, she argues, will be a system-wide effort to look at athletes through a human rights lens – as people first and athletes second.

This article is the second in a special series that explores how Canadian sport leaders are adapting and innovating to safeguard the wellbeing of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and other Major Games during a global pandemic. Read the first article here.

The challenges facing Canada’s top summer athletes have never been more daunting or more complex.

For the first time in the modern Olympic era, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed. The alarming spread of COVID-19 and the withdrawal of several countries – starting with Canada – forced organizers to make the unprecedented decision in late March to push back the start of the Tokyo Games by one year.

Canada’s Olympians and Paralympians – and those aspiring to be part of Team Canada in Tokyo in 2021 – have felt the pandemic’s impact in countless ways: from the closure of training facilities, to isolation from coaches and teammates, to the same financial anxieties facing millions of other Canadians suffering through one of the worst economic downturns in the country’s history.

Surprisingly, in the midst of the disappointment, stress and uncertainty, Canadian athletes and sport leaders are also experiencing a slew of unexpected benefits that may actually improve Canada’s chances for success at the highest level of international sport.

Hygiene breakthrough

Antoine Atallah
Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada

“I’ve often described a Major Games environment as the world’s largest petri dish,” says Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada, who oversees the planning of health services for Team Canada at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. “If you think about it, the Athletes’ Village brings 10,000 people from around the world to live, eat and compete together. It’s like a quadrennial convention of the world’s active viruses and communicable diseases.”

What’s so challenging about the current situation is that COVID-19 is a new virus and the distribution of approved vaccines will take many months to complete.

Atallah says planning for international competition now involves new and ever-expanding medical considerations, such as stricter hygiene practices, regular virus testing, added protections for para athletes with compromised immune systems, and protocols for anyone who contracts the virus.

In an ironic twist, he notes the global pandemic is also likely to lead to some long-term benefits that have been stubbornly difficult to achieve.

“For years and years, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of hygiene, but up until now it’s been really difficult to get athletes to wash their hands for 20 seconds or frequent use of hand sanitizer,” he says. “COVID-19 is changing that, not just for Tokyo, but I think for all Major Games in the future.”

New perspectives on planning and preparation

In a much broader sense, postponement of the Tokyo Games created unexpected time and space for the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) to put a fresh lens on their traditional approaches to Games planning and preparation.

“We’re embracing this opportunity to challenge assumptions, shake up the status quo, and ask ourselves some fundamental questions,” says Catherine Gosselin-Després, Executive Director of Sport for the CPC. “What can be done differently or more efficiently? How can we innovate to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and set the table for a better way down the road? We’re becoming far more systematic about the way we plan and then execute those plans.”

Gosselin-Després maintains that Team Canada must become more self-reliant than ever to limit exposure to people or situations that could put them at risk of getting sick. This collective self-reliance, she insists, will serve as one of the core pillars for Games planning well beyond Tokyo.

Erica Wiebe. Photo: Team Canada

According to Céline DesLauriers, Senior Manager of Games at the COC, the master project plan for a competition like the Summer Olympics is 20,000 lines long. Similar to Gosselin-Després, she says the postponement of the Tokyo Games has provided the chance “…to stop, think and re-evaluate. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What’s the benefit to our athletes and to their performance? This kind of analysis is going to make us that much more purpose-driven and efficient.”

As an example, DesLaurier’s’ COC colleague, Brett Greene, points to the possibility of using local companies to manage many of the logistics for Team Canada while they are restricted from travelling. “They obviously know the local situation and the culture far better than we do, and it’ll cut back on the number of site visits we have to make. Obviously, there isn’t much appetite right now for international travel.”

Gosselin-Després says the learning curve has been both steep and rewarding. “We’ve learned a lot by experimenting with different approaches and by sharing experiences with counterparts in other countries. I’ve actually never seen this much collaboration between national Paralympic committees. I think it sets all of us up well for the future.”

Unprecedented collaboration

Web designer brainstorming for a strategy plan. Colorful sticky notes with things to do on office board. User experience (UX) concept.

Around key medical issues, there is also a strong spirit of collaboration amongst leading experts and sport organizations. Dr. Mike Wilkinson, the COC’s Chief Medical Officer, notes that colleagues – both domestically and internationally – have embraced the opportunity to share research, policies and lessons learned.

“We’re all looking for answers and solutions and we recognized early on that it was going to take a concerted international effort to try to get ahead of this health crisis,” he says.

Wilkinson’s counterpart at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Dr. Andy Marshall, has also played an ongoing leadership role by bringing together medical leads from National Paralympic Committees around the world to share information and research, coordinate planning, and highlight best practices.

Domestically, Wilkinson says the level of collaboration across the sport system is better than he has ever seen it. “the way the COC, CPC and OTP work together has reached a whole new level,” he adds, “to the point where we’re making all the key medical decisions together.”

Wilkinson says that as a result of all this collaboration, he and Marshall often joke that they have been spending more time with each other than with their spouses.

He also points to the pivotal role of the Sport Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), drawing on the collective knowledge of seasoned experts from the COC, CPC, l’Institut National du Sport du Québec, and three Canadian Sport Institutes (Pacific, Calgary and Ontario).

“The Committee has been around for a while, but really hit its stride early in the pandemic when the high performance sport community was desperate for up to date reliable scientific information, and up-to-date recommendations they could trust,” adds Wilkinson.

Since February, the Committee has distributed almost two dozen updates offering the latest research on the virus, practical resources and tools, and guidance on return to training and competition.

The Return to Play Task Force, chaired by Own the Podium’s Anne Merklinger, has received high praise for moving quickly to gather the sport system together. The Task Force is comprised of a diverse group of 20 sector representatives, including nine national summer and winter sport organizations, multisport service organizations (e.g., Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Coaching Association of Canada), Canadian Sport Institutes, and senior government officials. Together, they developed a comprehensive National Framework to guide a prudent and well-informed reintroduction of sport in Canada.

The CPC’s Dr. Andy Marshall says he has been pleasantly surprised to see cooperation from organizations that have traditionally kept to themselves, such as professional sport leagues.

“The NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball, they normally don’t share information to a great degree with us on the amateur sport side,” he says. “But they were first out of the gate in North America to return to sport. And having access to their approaches, research and lessons learned has been really helpful in developing our plans for Team Canada.”

Athletes getting creative

For many Canadian athletes, the initial shock and disappointment of postponement is slowly being replaced with the staunch determination that has carried them to the top of their respective sports. With the chance to work through the anger and disappointment, high performance athletes are showing remarkable resilience and creativity in responding to challenges posed by the pandemic.

Wilkinson says social media platforms have been full of inspiring examples. “Homemade obstacle courses and climbing walls, workout areas in the garage, basement or the parents’ dining room,” he says. “Athletes have found so many creative ways to get in meaningful training without access to their regular facilities. Being able to work out at home also brought with it a whole lot of other benefits – less time and hassle commuting, money saved, and more opportunities to train on personal gaps.”

Seyi Smith
Seyi Smith, Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission

Seyi Smith is one of those exceptional athletes to have competed in both Summer (London 2012, Athletics) and Winter Olympic Games (PyeongChang 2018, Bobsleigh). Now Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, he believes the pandemic has helped athletes become more resilient and self-sufficient.

“With some creative thought and some borrowed equipment, it’s been possible for many high performance athletes to do most of their training at home,” he says. “That realization has been quite powerful because it’s proven to some athletes that they don’t necessarily have to be dependent on other people or facilities to maintain their training regime.”

Rest as a competitive advantage

Wilkinson adds that several athletes have also embraced the chance to address longstanding issues like chronic injuries, biomechanics, technique corrections and strength deficits. “It’s an unanticipated gift of time and many Canadian athletes are using it wisely. On the mental side of things, putting the Tokyo Games on hold, the associated unknowns and rapidly changing scenarios are probably the best mental resilience training tool we could have ever designed.”

For slalom kayaker Michael Taylor, postponement has a “silver lining,” allowing him to recover from some nagging injuries sustained last winter. “Obviously it’s tough having things delayed,” he told CBC Radio in July. “But … I’ve been able to spend more time at home, more time with family which for athletes is so rare when we’re travelling on the road. So that part’s been really nice.”

Like so many of her Canadian Olympic teammates, swimmer Kylie Masse has been enjoying an extended stay with family through most of the pandemic. She believes many silver linings have emerged from the pandemic pause.

Manager In Huddle With Womens Football Team Giving Motivational Pep Talk Before Soccer Match

“Physically, the break gives you that much more time to recover (from injuries and fatigue), and mentally have a little bit of a reset and a break from the water and a chance to enjoy some other aspects of your life, and to really learn a little bit about yourself,” the Olympic and world championship medalist told The Canadian Press. “There’s so many things that I can look back on and say that I achieved during quarantine and they’re not huge things at all, but just little things like about myself or a new activity I tried. All those things are important to look at in the big picture.”

The sense of peace and perspective that Masse speaks about are indicative of the many unexpected benefits that have emerged during the pandemic.

For Olympic gold medalist Erica Wiebe, it’s all about perspective. “2020 is not normal,” she said on a CBC Radio interview this summer. “And it’s given us different opportunities and gifts and so I’m just trying to take it in stride.”

Back to basics

There is an existential element to the pandemic, according to the COC’s Wilkinson, as some athletes reflect on why they devote so much of themselves to the pursuit of the podium.

“As a high-performance athlete, you’re immersed in the grind, the thick of offseason training, and it can be hard sometimes to remind yourself of the ‘why,’” he adds. “This moment has also reminded many why they are in sport, about the power of sport to be a beacon of hope and how sport can be an incredible magnet to draw us all together.”

Stephanie Dixon is seeing evidence of the same mindset amongst many of Canada’s top summer Paralympians. As the Chef de Mission for Team Canada at next year’s Paralympic Games, she describes it as “a wonderful opportunity, for those who aren’t involved with the daily grind of the ever-changing logistics and planning. For many of us preparing for the Games, it’s a gift of time and space to take a breath, to reflect and to get ourselves into an even stronger position to succeed, both physically and mentally.”

This article is the first in a special series that explores how Canadian sport leaders are adapting and innovating to safeguard the well-being of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major games during a global pandemic. Read the second article here.

Following the previously unthinkable decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Host Organizing Committee to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games, Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the 2020 Olympic Games, Marnie McBean, penned an open letter to Canadian high performance athletes. While acknowledging the devastation and disappointment, she encouraged them to do what they have always done: “… figure things out and thrive.”

“Your plan was thrown in the garbage, but your goal was not.”

– Marnie McBean, Olympic Chef de Mission

The 3-time Olympic gold medalist knows firsthand the kind of dedication and sacrifice it takes to succeed at the highest levels of international sport. She battled through her fair share of setbacks and disappointments, including a back injury that forced an early retirement just ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But she would also be the first to admit that she never had to face anything as daunting and complex as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Growing unrest

In the weeks leading up to the March 24th announcement, athletes from many countries had become increasingly vocal with concerns about the risks of continued training and competition in the midst of a rapidly spreading health crisis, the likes of which the world had never seen.

Among the most prominent advocates was five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission and a practicing Canadian physician. The former captain of the National Women’s Hockey Team called it “insensitive and irresponsible” to continue to push for delivery of the Olympics and Paralympics as scheduled, while cases of COVID-19 escalated at an alarming rate across Canada and around the world.

Working actively behind the scenes and in front of the media microphones, determined Canadian athletes made it clear that there was only one decision to be made: Withdraw from Tokyo 2020.

Canada the first to withdraw

Late on the evening of March 22nd, Canada stepped forward as the first country to declare it would not send athletes to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

summer olympic game. tokyo 2020, white background

“In hindsight, it was a no-brainer, but we actually took a lot of flack in the first few days,” according to Dr. Mike Wilkinson, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). “If we were truly committed to putting the health and well-being of our athletes first, then ethically there was no way we could ask them to continue to train and compete in a world consumed by COVID-19.”

On March 24th, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started his morning with a call from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – reportedly one of many world leaders to make the case for a delay. The decision to postpone the Games for one year was announced later that evening. It is the first time in the modern Olympic era that the world’s biggest and most expensive sporting event has been postponed.

Considering the massive economic and public health impact of the pandemic, Canadian officials believed it was the only prudent decision to make. Nonetheless, the ripple effects have been widespread and as unique as the athletes who have been so deeply affected: from pressing reset on meticulous training plans, to adapting to a new reality where familiar facilities were suddenly and completely off limits. On a personal level, a new and unexpected paradigm had some athletes saying it was time for an internal “gut check” to gauge whether the competitive fire still burned. There was also the very real and pragmatic question of whether they could afford to finance another full year of intensive training in pursuit of their athletic dreams.

The ripple effects

The IOC has indicated that the Tokyo Games will go ahead, with or without COVID-19. Vice-president, John Coates, has declared that the event will start on July 23rd, 2021, although many details remain unknown, such as whether or not spectators will be allowed into the sport venues.

Canadian officials continue to work diligently through contingency plans for every conceivable scenario. “We have to expect that the Games will look and feel different,” notes Dr. Wilkinson, “and that major multi-sport events are going to be different from now on.”

Moreover, he cautions that Tokyo is only the first event on a jam-packed international sport calendar that will see more major games in a shorter period of time than ever before. Over the next quadrennial, that list includes the 2020 Tokyo Games in 2021; the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, followed that summer by both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and Les Jeux de la Francophonie in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; the 2023 Pan and Parapan Am Games in Santiago, Chile; and the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Understandably, everybody is focused on preparations for Tokyo, but our winter athletes are actually facing the biggest issues right now as they look to qualify this winter for Beijing,” he adds. “A lot of those events are supposed to take place in China which will require a ton of contingency planning and detailed logistics.”

Game changer

Dr. Andy Marshall, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“It’s been a tremendously difficult time for the athletes,” says Dr. Andy Marshall, the Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC).  “But the reality is that the vast majority of our high performance athletes have been affected by the very same issues as millions of other Canadians. They feel isolated and stressed out, unable to be with family and friends, and frustrated by all the uncertainty. And when you realize that most athletes don’t make a living through sport, they’re also worried about making ends meet.”

Beyond these factors, Dr. Marshall points out that the health impact is potentially life-changing for these finely-tuned athletes. “For the average 20-year-old Canadian, they might equate COVID with getting the flu,” he explains. “But if I’m an elite athlete, and I’m suffering with symptoms for weeks or months, or the virus causes even a five percent decrease in my lung or cardiac capacity, what does that mean for my chances of competing against the best athletes in the world?”

Besides being cut off from training facilities, coaches and teammates, Canadian athletes are mourning the loss of competition – the one activity that defines them more than anything else. The global pandemic has forced these uber-competitive, type A personalities to practice something that may not come naturally – patience.

“It’s probably the longest I’ve ever gone in my athletic career without having a race,” slalom kayaker Michael Taylor told CBC Radio. “But I’ve enjoyed working out in my parents’ dining room,” he says with a laugh, “which I’ve turned into a makeshift gym.”

Cam Smedley and Michael Tayler in training at the Whitewater Stadium, Deodoro Park, Rio De Janeiro. David Jackson/ COC
Photo: Team Canada.

The recent postponement of the Niagara 2021 Canada Summer Games 2020 serves as yet another reminder of the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian sport system. “All of our athletes, coaches and volunteers are top of mind for us in deciding to postpone the Games. No doubt this decision will be disappointing for those who have been training and preparing for the 2021 Games, but we hope to find their understanding and support,” said Evan Johnston, Chair of the Canada Games Council Board in a press release. “We made this difficult decision now, after careful consideration, to protect the health of Canadians and give all stakeholders more time to adjust their preparations. We will be reviewing options for new dates for the Canada Summer Games to take place during the summer of 2022 in the Niagara Region.”

At Canada’s universities and colleges, varsity programs have been scrapped for the fall season. And for athletes who had their sights set on international competition at the Winter World University Games in Lucerne, Switzerland, it’s a cruel double-whammy.

The Games, organized by the Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU), are the largest winter multi-sport event after the Olympics. The winter edition had been scheduled to run from January 21st to 31st, 2021, with student athletes from 50 countries, including Canada, invited to compete. But growing fears of a second wave of coronavirus cases across Europe forced organizers to shelve the event for at least a year.

“After more than four years of preparation it is a painful decision, but in the end an easy one,” Organizing Committee President, Guido Graf, said in a statement. “The health of all the participants has always been the top priority in our evaluations.”

The Winter Universiade were to be the first opportunity for Canadian medical and technical experts to assess protocols and practices in a multi-sport environment. “We were hoping to put in practice a series of contingencies to deal with every possible scenario we could think of,” says Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada, who oversees the planning of health services for Team Canada. “Even with the postponement of the Games, we are still planning for different scenarios while learning from sports organizations and competitions worldwide where protocols in place are working to keep athletes and their support staff safe. Such benchmarking and best practices will help us in our planning for all Games in 2021, including the Olympics and Paralympics.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

Despite the devastating disappointment for Canada’s best summer athletes, many have taken Marnie McBean’s advice to heart and “figured things out.”

Erica Wiebe, wrestler and Olympic gold medalist. Photo: Team Canada.

For Erica Wiebe, a gold medalist in wrestling at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it all boils down to one question: “What can I do today and what can I control today?” Cut off from training facilities, Wiebe told CBC Radio she accepted an offer to work out in a friend’s garage with equipment on loan from Canadian Sport Institute (CSI) Calgary. 

“It’s tough to not know anything really, but for me it’s always been about taking back control of the process and really empowering myself,” says Wiebe who has qualified for Tokyo. “As athletes, we’re empowered with the gift to always try to be present in the moment.”

Canadian athletes embraced Plato’s contention that “necessity is the mother of invention,” as access to facilities was cut off almost overnight.

“YouTube was full of examples of athlete ingenuity,” notes Dr. Wilkinson of the COC. “They built their own squat racks out of used lumber, installed tether lines in backyard swimming pools, built homemade obstacle courses and climbing gyms. It’s been really inspiring.”

Compounding the many physical challenges have been the less visible and often more difficult mental aspects of a global pandemic and the associated lockdown.

“I think mental performance issues have become far more prominent because athletes need skills and tools to deal with the anxiety, disappointment and, most of all, the unknown,” says the CPC’s Dr. Marshall. “Like never before, we’ve seen athletes take advantage of mental health services through their national sport organizations and the network of sport institutes across the country. Nobody wants to see them suffering, but this experience will build resilience and develop new coping skills that will help them in competition and in life.”

For Stephanie Dixon, Chef de Mission for Canada’s 2020 Paralympic Team, athletes have been riding a roller coaster of emotions as they come to terms with the impact of the pandemic. “We face such high expectations,” says the 19-time Paralympic medallist. “Athletes can feel that they are supposed to be laser-focused on training and performance goals 24/7. But at a time like this, athletes need to know that it’s okay to be feeling what they’re feeling: disappointed, disconnected, angry, grateful. Whatever it is, it’s all okay.”

For the athletes hoping to join Dixon on Team Canada’s Paralympic Team in Tokyo, the challenges can be even more daunting while, at the same time, oddly familiar.

Lima, Peru -  23/August/2019 -  Eric Rodrigues (#41) in action as Canada takes on Argentina in wheelchair rugby at the Parapan Am Games in Lima, Peru. Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee.
Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee

“For Paralympic athletes, coaches and support staff, preparing for a major international competition during a pandemic is basically ‘more of the same,’” suggests Andy Van Neutegem, PhD, Director, Performance Sciences, Research and Innovation at Own the Podium. “I’ve been working closely with para athletes for more than 15 years. Planning and preparation are always more complicated – pandemic or not – and full of contingencies.”

Van Neutegem says there are unique considerations when putting together training and travelling plans for athletes with disabilities. Many have compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to illnesses and infections.

“In some ways, para athletes may be better equipped to cope with all of the twists and turns,” adds the CPC’s Dr. Marshall. “They have to think about these things all the time – hygiene protocols, access to transport and facilities, assessing risk – it’s all part of life for a high performance para sport athlete. In a way, you could say that some of our athletes have been preparing their whole lives for the pandemic.”

What’s not so familiar, he adds, is the burning frustration of watching competitors in other countries who have far greater access to training and competition than Canadians do.

“When you’re so totally focused on achieving a goal and you see your competitors enjoying what feels like an unfair advantage, it can put you in a pretty negative head space,” he explains. “But the valuable part in all this is learning to concentrate on those things within your control and worrying less about what you can’t. It’s a great mental skill that’ll help the athletes in competition and in every other aspect of their lives.”

Return to training and competition

The disparity between pandemic restrictions in different parts of the world has also surfaced some complex ethical issues. If athletes in another country have more opportunity to train and compete, explains Van Neutegem, it’s tempting for Canada’s high performance athletes and coaches to consider travelling to these other locations so they don’t end up falling behind their international rivals.

Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“You have to understand the kind of internal pressure these athletes are feeling, and the years and years they’ve invested in preparing for an Olympic or Paralympic Games,” he says. “But at the same time, if an athlete decides to leave for another country with lax public health restrictions, how does that jive with Canada’s commitment to ethical sport and to ensuring the health and well-being of our athletes? It’s a real dilemma.”

One of Canada’s leading athlete advocates has observed a growing concern that the playing field is tilting in some sports because of unequal access to training and competition in different parts of the world. Seyi Smith, Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, says it is a valid concern, but there is nothing that athletes can do about it. “Sure, there may be competitors in your sport who are back to a full training schedule and maybe even competing while you’re struggling to find ways to keep up,” he says. “But there’s nothing we can do about what’s happening in other countries. As athletes, we have to focus on what we can control and make smart decisions that don’t put our health at risk.”

Even in the middle of a global health crisis, Smith doesn’t think athlete preparations will change all that much. “Canadian athletes have faith in themselves and in the process that will get them ready for Tokyo. I don’t think the coronavirus is going to knock them too far off course.”

Medal hopefuls like diver Jennifer Abel echo that sentiment. “Instead of pushing back on what life has brought on all of us, I made the commitment to accept what is and cherish what lies ahead. Training is what keeps me focused and what makes me feel alive. I have found a way to stay in shape at a slower pace in the comfort of my home. Right now, that’s all I need.”

In an ironic twist, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually been a blessing for some athletes. With all competition sidelined, it’s an opportunity to take a step back, evaluate and invest time in areas that don’t normally get enough attention.

“Early on, we chose to focus on gaps and issues that might have been on the back burner for a long time for some athletes,” says Dr. Wilkinson. “For some, it was treating a nagging injury. For others, it was a biomechanics issue, a strength deficit, or a gap in mental preparation. In my work with Canada’s national rowing team, I’ve seen athletes make significant progress in areas we’ve been trying to address for years.”

Dixon says that she’s aware of athletes drawing on a wide variety of practices and resources, from meditation to yoga, music, poetry and mindfulness. “I’m encouraging our para athletes to befriend what they’re facing, to accept and acknowledge the anxiety and to be okay with those feelings. It becomes easier, then, to move past it and focus on preparations for Tokyo.”

Shot putter Brittany Crew is another Canadian athlete choosing a “glass-half-full” perspective on the delay caused by the pandemic. Featured on Athletics Canada’s People Behind the Performances podcast, she described news of the delay as “devastating” because she was on track to throw really well in Tokyo. “So, to be delayed another year, it was kind of like a kick in the face.” Upon reflection, Crew now believes that having more time to prepare is in her best interests. “This is just going to give me another year to get stronger, to get faster, and to refine my technique a little bit more and maybe work on some mental performance. So, I think it’s a blessing in disguise and I think it’s going to work to my advantage.”

Figuring things out and thriving

For Canada’s best summer athletes, the coronavirus pandemic has turned their lives upside down, forcing a re-write of detailed training and competition plans, and piling on layers of unsettling stress. While some athletes continue to wrestle with the anxiety and uncertainty, others are heeding the advice in Marnie McBean’s open letter to “figure things out and thrive.”

“Your (story) … includes all the work and competition that led up to the global COVID-19 shutdown, it includes everything that you’ve been doing since February and it will include everything that will come in the next year,” McBean wrote. “No matter what happens, continue to figure out a story that you’ll be proud to share. Continue to believe that you are capable of more. Continue to build a better, stronger and healthier you.”