Canada's Olympic team committed to Beijing Games despite rising concerns with Omicron

·4 min read
Despite speculation surrounding the spread of the Omicron variant, the athletes and leadership at the Canadian Olympic Committee are currently committed to fielding a team for Beijing 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Despite speculation surrounding the spread of the Omicron variant, the athletes and leadership at the Canadian Olympic Committee are currently committed to fielding a team for Beijing 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

On the subject of Beijing 2022 going ahead as planned, one of Canada's key sport leaders sounded very guarded as the calendar turned to the Olympic year.

"We're worried," sighed David Shoemaker, the CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which is responsible for mounting Team Canada's effort at the Games in China.

"At the same time, we're learning as we learned from the Tokyo 2020 experience and heeding every bit of guidance we can from our chief medical officer and his network of medical experts. We're confident that these Games can still be scheduled safely. But we're taking it day-by-day."

The days are running out.

And because of recent fallout from the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the persistence of the pandemic, speculation is running rife.

High profile athletes such as alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States have tested positive and will miss action in the leadup to the Olympics.

WATCH | Shoemaker discusses Canada's position on Beijing with CBC Sports' Scott Russell:

The NHL and its players have backed out of the Games in Beijing fearing major disruptions should there be positive tests and isolation required. The World Junior Hockey Championships have been cancelled as have the Canadian Olympic mixed doubles curling trials. The Canadian bobsleigh team has 14 athletes and staff isolated in Latvia because of positive tests. The Canadian figure skating championships in Ottawa next week will be without spectators and media.

But Shoemaker insists there has not been a postponement of the Games talked about — at least not yet.

"We have yet to have a conversation with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) about postponement but we're having conversations on a very frequent basis with the participating winter sport nations and it may well come up."

Turning focus away from panicking

Some national sport organizations in Canada are also refraining from pushing the panic button with just over a month to go.

Instead, they are pointing to the measures being taken by the COC to reduce risk to the athlete's health such as vaccination, testing, masking, physical distancing and enhanced basic hygiene. They are also re-assured by the scientific evidence which suggests the Omicron variant is unlikely to cause serious illness in most people.

"I'm confident in the risk mitigation plans," said Alpine Canada president and CEO Therese Brisson when contacted by email. "Our focus is on executing those mitigation plans rather than requesting postponement at this time."

That said, Brisson is worried about the fallout should Canadian athletes test positive in Beijing and be required to isolate in China for a period of three to five weeks.

"If I have any concern, it is more around staff/team burnout with the constant adjustment of plans and the potential for unnecessarily onerous quarantine/isolation measures and or controls with a positive COVID test that would prevent athletes from competing or delay their return home and the mental health implications of that."

Remaining hurdles

For his part, Shoemaker suggested that the greatest hurdle to be overcome is not the safety of the athletes in Beijing but the hoops the team will have to jump through just to get there.

"Medical experts agree, and the consensus point of view is that it may well be that the safest place from Omicron in February will be the Olympic bubble in Beijing," he reckoned.

"The real challenge for us over the next 30 days is how do we make sure that Canadian participants can get to Beijing without contracting the virus and therefore become able to test negative to get into that scenario."

One thing is clear, according to Shoemaker. The athletes and leadership at the Canadian Olympic Committee are currently committed to fielding a team for Beijing 2022.

"So far the Athlete's Commission is very much systems go and that our focus needs to be on preventative measures," he stressed.

"We're confident we can bring a team to Beijing safely and we think it's important that we do that. Provided it's safe. Provided our chief medical officer green lights it, we are going to do everything we can to bring Team Canada to Beijing."

There are now less than five weeks to go until the opening ceremony of Beijing 2022. The kickoff to the Games is scheduled at the magnificent Bird's Nest on Feb. 4.

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