Canada's athletes fit but rusty heading into Tokyo's beleaguered Olympic Games

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How Canada's cautious approach to sport during a global pandemic helped or hindered athletes chasing Olympic glory is about to be revealed in Tokyo.

Citing public safety concerns as the COVID-19 virus descended upon the world, Canada was the first country to declare its withdrawal from the 2020 Tokyo Games a full two days before the postponement to 2021.

A bold move and one that reflects Canada's social conscience when it comes to public health, the country's continued carefulness around the coronavirus in subsequent months also meant lost training and competition days at home and abroad for its athletes.

Many Canadian athletes knew of Tokyo rivals who were getting more training and competition reps in other countries.

"It's kind of hard to completely ignore what's going on around the world," said world champion backstroker Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont.

"We've kind of been behind and we've been in lockdown so much longer than other countries. I think all of us swimmers here had accepted a while ago that things were very different in a lot of other countries.

"It's been a challenge for everyone, no matter what discipline, sport or workplace you're in. We've all had to overcome obstacles this last year."

Masse's teammate and world butterfly champion Maggie Mac Neil suggests Canadian athletes are equipped to handle zero spectators and the constant temperature checks, COVID tests and wearing of masks in Tokyo.

That's been their lives for months.

"We've been lucky in Canada to have such strict protocols, which I think will help prepare us as well for when we head to Japan and have strict protocols that we're used to following," said the swimmer from London, Ont.

Canada's Olympic team of 371 athletes, which is the largest since 1984, starts competing before Friday's opening ceremonies.

The women's soccer team faces host Japan and the softball team meets Mexico in pool games Wednesday.

"I do think the Olympics are going to sneak up on the general population, that the Olympics have been talked about as a pandemic issue more than a sport issue," said Canadian chef de mission Marnie McBean.

The Canadian team travels to a city under a state of emergency because of rising infections and to a country ambivalent about the arrival of 70,000 athletes, officials and media for what is now a made-for-TV Games.

More than 90 per cent of the Canada's delegation travelling to Tokyo is fully vaccinated with two doses, according to the Canadian Olympic Committee.

The International Olympic Committee states 85 per cent of athletes and officials in the athletes' village and almost all IOC members and staff are either vaccinated or immune, with between 70 and 80 per cent of international media also vaccinated.

With just 20 per cent of Japanese residents fully vaccinated, however, the host country will be wary of these Olympic Games.

Women's basketball veteran Miranda Ayim and Nathan Hirayama, co-captain of Canada’s men’s rugby sevens team, are Canada's flag-bearers for the opening ceremony. They were named in an announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday.

Sprint star Andre De Grasse, two-time trampoline champion Rosannagh MacLennan, a powerhouse women's swim team led by Olympic multi-medallist Penny Oleksiak, golfer Brooke Henderson, wrestler Erica Wiebe and soccer captain Christine Sinclair are among Canada's headliners.

Tennis stars Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu opted out.

Eight entries in team sports equals Canada's record for a non-boycotted, non-hosted Games.

Women's soccer, basketball, softball, rugby sevens and water polo and men's volleyball, field hockey and rugby sevens all qualified for Tokyo before the pandemic.

The Olympic Games close Aug. 8 and are followed by the Paralympic Games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Canada achieved its objective of a top-12 ranking in total Olympic medals in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

Twenty-two medals (four gold, three silver and 15 bronze) ranked Canada 10th and tied for the nation's most at a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Women won the first dozen en route to 16 of the total.

The Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee and Own the Podium have not set hard targets for Tokyo.

"All three organizations have agreed that we won't set a performance objective for these Games because the international landscape is too varied to know how nations have been impacted by the pandemic," OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.

"The data points around international competitive results are non-existent in some sports."

Uninterrupted training blocks with no peaking for, or travelling to, international competitions for well over a year has a relatively injury-free Canadian team heading to Tokyo without a measuring stick on itself or the competition.

"I kind of feel like everybody in the world is playing this huge game of Texas hold'em," McBean said. "And I think it's just going to be this 'OK, what do you got?'

"Canadian athletes are faster and stronger than they've ever been. Like many athletes in the world, they're missing a lot of competition experience.

"Now without the fans in the stands, it is competitor versus competitor. What it's going to do for the athletes now is they're going to kind of hear their own heartbeat on this one, they're going to hear their breathing. It's going to make it very intimate."

Stir into Tokyo's cocktail the social and economic justice issues that gained prominence during the pandemic.

The International Olympic Committee slightly relaxed Rule 50 of its charter that prohibits any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" during the Games.

Athletes will be allowed to make protest or social-justice gestures before the start of the competition, but not on the podium.

They'll still face disciplinary action if their gesture is targeted against people, countries and organizations or is disruptive, says the IOC.

Another first in Tokyo is athletes granted more freedom to promote non-Olympic sponsors on their social media accounts during these Games.

The pandemic pushed Russia to the backburner of Olympic news, but the country's flag, anthem and team name are banned from Tokyo in punishment for doping and coverups.

"ROC" gold medallists will hear Piano Concerto No. 1 by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky instead of the national anthem.

The Canadian taxpayer funds Olympic and Paralympic athletes to the tune of about $200 million annually.

OTP directs about $70 million of it in targeted funding to winter and summer, Olympic and Paralympic sport federations based on medal potential.

The Canadian Olympic Committee pays for team costs and Games preparation from millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships.

The COC will continue to pay athletes medal bonuses in Tokyo of $20,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Their coaches receive bonuses of half those amounts.

— With files from Lori Ewing and The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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