Canada's quartet of Rio champions continue prep for 2021 ahead of uncertain Games

CBC

Here we go again.

The Tokyo Olympics are one year away … we think.

But so much has changed since the world was last in this position. A global pandemic and social upheaval have conspired to create ubiquitous uncertainty. The rules are different. People are questioning what the Olympics are, or should be, all about.

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The great, planetary, gathering and its value to humanity is most definitely being re-evaluated.

Are the Olympics worth the risk?

The costs to Japanese taxpayers are soaring. There is talk of downsizing the Games, staging a simplified event, and in the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, further postponements or even outright cancellations appear to be on the table. Public sentiment and support in Japan, once almost unanimous, is now wavering.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo hosts panel to discuss uncertain Tokyo Games:

What about the athletes?

They are, after all, the major stakeholders in all of this.

Olympians are rare, a tiny fraction of the world's total population of several billion souls. Olympic champions are rarer still, only 8,782 in the history of the summer Games which began in 1896. Canada had only four gold medallists at the last summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan, swimmer Penny Oleksiak, high jumper Derek Drouin, and wrestler Erica Wiebe are all aiming to be in Tokyo next summer as the Games open on July 23rd at the lavish National Stadium.

That said all of these champions have been forced to accept a different reality which requires them to adjust expectations, confront fears, consider the possibility of Games without spectators, and listen to increased calls for them to be socially responsible while freely voicing their opinions.

We contacted each of these champions and asked them the same questions about what the year ahead might entail. They all answered promptly and with insight.

Their responses reflect the understanding that they are much more than players and celebrities but instead fully aware of their status as role models, contributors to the international discourse, and even inspirational performers.

Oleksiak comes off teenage dream at Rio

Penny Oleksiak was a 16-year-old phenomenon in the swimming pool at Rio. She won four medals, and burst spectacularly into the spotlight. It was almost as if she caught all of us, even herself, by surprise.

"The biggest change in me is how I view life," she wrote in an email. "Now I try to live more fearlessly and wholeheartedly and I try my best to make everyone around me feel more loved and included with everything I do, day to day."

WATCH | Penny Oleksiak reflects on Olympic debut:

But she has trepidation.

"My biggest concern or fear is just the Olympics and whether they will happen officially in 2021. The uncertainty is scary, but every single day my sights are set on the Olympics happening and all I can do is train as if they will."

And if they do happen Oleksiak is ready to play her part, knowing that Canadians expect her to represent them well both on and off the field of play.

"I use my platform to express how I feel about certain social issues," she said. "I think it's important for athletes and people in general, whether they have big followings or not, to make it known that they support certain social issues and causes and to let others know that they are being heard and supported."

Drouin battles injuries en route to Tokyo

Derek Drouin will attempt to qualify for his third Olympics in Tokyo. He won high jump bronze in London in 2012, became world champion in 2015, and then soared to the Olympic title in Brazil in 2016.

Injuries have plagued him ever since.

"My biggest concern is that my body isn't capable of doing the same things it could do four and eight years ago," he admitted.

"With competitions being cancelled this season I haven't had the opportunity to test myself against my competitors in a really long time. You never really know how you're going to react in a competitive situation until you get there so it's a bit scary knowing I haven't tested myself like that in so long."

WATCH | Derek Drouin captures high jump gold at Rio 2016:

Drouin worries that an Olympic Games without spectators on hand would alter performance levels.

"I thrive in a situation where there are fans to add a bit of pressure," he said. "So I think in 99 per cent of scenarios, if there are no spectators, I would struggle to find the right level of adrenaline to compete. The one percent exception to that rule, I'd like to think, is the Olympic Games."

On the matter of accepting social responsibility, Drouin sees it as a duty but one which manifests itself in a very personal way.

"We have amazing, outspoken, advocates in the athletic world who lead with their voices and we have athletes who lead by example. I like to consider myself to be the latter. This season hasn't been easy for any athlete and this year hasn't been easy for any human being. What I've tried to do is take on adversity by rolling with the punches and to exhibit an ability to re-evaluate and adapt to whatever life throws my way."

MacLennan goes for trampoline 3-peat

Rosie MacLennan is the first Canadian athlete to successfully defend an Olympic gold medal at the summer Games. She won trampoline gold in London in 2012 and four years later in Rio de Janeiro where she carried the Canadian flag in the Opening Ceremony.

MacLennan is the vice-chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission and holds a Master's degree in Exercise Science from the University of Toronto with a focus on athletes' rights, roles and responsibilities.

Her view on the future of the Tokyo Olympics extends well beyond her own personal goals and aspirations.

"I think my concerns and fears are pretty aligned with what most peoples' are and they aren't necessarily specific to the Games," she reckoned.

"They are more focused on the health and well-being of my family, our country, and the world. It is a generational experience that we are living through right now and with that comes a fair bit of uncertainty and so much is beyond our control. We aren't wired to manage uncertainty that well. With that in mind, I try to turn my attention to what I can control rather than fearing what I cannot."

WATCH | Rosie MacLennan discusses back-to-back Olympic gold medals:

And while she trains and readies herself as if the Tokyo Olympics will happen, MacLennan remains convinced of one thing. She subscribes to the reality that athletes like her must strive to use their voices for good.

"I think it stems from being human and genuinely caring about what is happening with the health crisis and racial injustice," she stressed.

"As an Olympic champion, maybe I have a different opportunity or platform from which to be heard than some others but the pressure and responsibility is more about doing what is right. I am really grateful for the opportunity to learn from other athletes and there are so many that are vocal, so many that are working towards change, and working to set a strong example."

Wiebe driven by performance anxiety

The ancient sport of wrestling is where Erica Wiebe has made her mark as a champion. Into her thirties, she has matured both personally and professionally as an athlete.

"I know when I walked off the mat in Rio that I was scratching the surface of what I was capable of," she recalled.

"Now four years later it's amazing how much the aperture of my wrestling knowledge has expanded. I'm getting stronger, and fitter, and more dangerous, with each year. It's exciting."

But though she is convinced of her growth, she harbours lingering doubt.

"My fear never really changes. Will I be enough? Will I be ready? Do I have what it takes to do it … again? This situation has made me have to face those fears even more so than in the past and find new ways to build the resilience and confidence to overcome them. The fears push me to be better every single day."

WATCH | Erica Wiebe aims to defend Rio 2016 gold medal:

And Wiebe also understands that grappling with difficult, societal, issues comes with the territory of being an Olympian.

"Sport has always been a contested terrain for social and political statements," she concluded.

"We are seeing a rise in the power of the individual athlete and it'll be interesting to see where the balance of power will rest in a year's time. I will always hold up sport as one of the most powerful vehicles for social change and I'm proud to represent Canada and all that we stand for."

They are four, distinct, Olympic champions.

In the history of the summer Games there have been 64 gold medals won by Canadian athletes beginning with George Orton's steeplechase triumph in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.

We are at exactly the same stage we were 365 days ago.

There is one year remaining until Tokyo.

But this time almost everything about the future of the Olympics has changed.

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