Canadian athletes start planning for, dreaming of, Tokyo 2021 Games

The Canadian Press

Canadian athletes are recalibrating their lives now that the Tokyo Games are postponed until 2021.

Tuesday's announcement by the International Olympic Committee and Japan's organizers came less than 48 hours after Canada's Olympic and Paralympic committees declared they would not send teams to Tokyo this summer.

Canadian sprint star Andre De Grasse is relieved the emotional roller-coaster he's been riding has levelled out somewhat.

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"I'm at peace with the Olympics being postponed until 2021," he told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. "The last few weeks have been difficult.

"At first I convinced myself that COVID-19 was going to go away in time for the Games to be held this summer. But when we lost access to our training facilities a week ago I started to have some real doubts.

"It was a bold but impressive move for the COC and CPC to lead the charge in pushing for the Games to be postponed. We're all fighting for something much more important than medals at the moment."

Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe said "there was a collective sigh of relief.

"It's given athletes a sense of security knowing we still have time to qualify for the Olympics, to train and compete at the Olympics at our best and to be able to address the concerns of safety within our communities."

COVID-19 has infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed thousands world-wide, while bringing the sports world to its knees.

With only 57 per cent of Olympic qualification spots determined and athletes unable to train because of shuttered facilities, the IOC was under increasing pressure to reschedule.

The opening ceremonies were to be held July 24, followed by the Paralympic Games starting Aug. 25.

The IOC stated Sunday it would take four weeks to make a decision. But the Australian Olympic Committee quickly joined Canada in refusing to send teams to Tokyo this summer. 

"I didn't speak to Australia until after we'd made our decision so I was quite surprised," COC president Tricia Smith said.

USA Gymnastics then added its voice to that country's governing bodies of track and field and swimming in calling for postponements.

IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jointly made the call Tuesday to reschedule for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games.

The Olympics of 1916, 1940 and 1944 were cancelled outright because of war.

Canada's Olympic and Paralympic committees issued a joint statement lauding the decision.

Those organizations now face a quick turnaround between the Summer Games in 2021 and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

"I'll start by taking a deep breath," COC chief executive officer David Shoemaker said. "That is not lost on our games operations team because part of what we pride ourselves in with Team Canada is creating an environment for our athletes and for our team and coaches that is second to none.

"We know that interval now will be shrunk very materially. It could be as little as six months apart."

Two-time Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan, who sits on the COC's athletes' commission, was a vocal proponent of Canada not sending athletes to Tokyo this summer.

The 31-year-old from King City, Ont., was relieved the IOC didn't wait four weeks to make a decision.

"I know it's not an easy decision and the process is incredibly complex, but I do think it does give an incredible opportunity for the Olympic Games to be a story of the world coming together and overcoming this virus," MacLennan said.

So after taking their bold stance two days ago, Canada's athletes didn't have to ponder for long the uncomfortable prospect of the Tokyo Games happening without them.

They must navigate, however, what the postponement means for their preparation.

The exact dates for next year's Tokyo Games have yet to be announced, although the IOC said no later than the summer of 2021.

"Facilities are still closed across Canada and the priority is ensuring our communities are safe," Wiebe said. "I don't know what the next couple, days, weeks or months will even look like. There's still a lot of questions on my mind."

A conference call involved more than 450 Canadian athletes, the Olympic and Paralympic committees, Sport Canada and the athlete wellness organization Game Plan was held Tuesday, according to Canadian Paralympic Committee president Karen O'Neill.

"It was recognizing the Games ahead within these really unique circumstances and the stress it was putting on our athletes," O'Neill said.

The COC's Smith said the IOC indicated athletes who have already qualified for Tokyo remain qualified, but dozens within Canada and hundreds around the world have yet to secure their berths.

Canada's Olympic and Paralympic swim trials were scheduled to start Monday at Toronto's Pan Am Pool.

"I woke up every day knowing exactly how my day was going to go and where I needed to be," Paralympic swim champion Aurelie Rivard said. "And then suddenly it was all gone."

World champion backstroker Kylie Masse was last in the pool March 13. Within 24 hours, trials were cancelled and her pool closed.

What are the new dates of the Tokyo Games, when can she get back in the pool and when will trials be held are questions she would love answered, but the 24-year-old from LaSalle, Ont., knows she must be patient.

"We don't know when we're preparing for," Masse said. "What's important and what I'm trying to do right now is maybe take a little bit of a break because when we are allowed to be back in the water and training, we'll have to be going that much longer again."

Once under-represented in traditional team sports at Summer Games, Canada has qualified eight for Tokyo in women's softball, basketball, soccer, water polo and rugby sevens, as well as men's field hockey, volleyball and rugby sevens.

That's a Canadian record for a non-boycotted, non-hosted Games. It's also a lot of athletes to manoeuvre through 2021 prep.

"There's a lot of logistics to work through on how that will look and work and a lot of that still pending on day-to-day changes that are happening," women's rugby sevens coach John Tait said.

"There's a lot of scenario planning that has to start right now and we still don't have a firm date of when it will be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.

— with files from Neil Davidson in Toronto. 

Donna Spencer and Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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