Making the transition from the Olympics to the Paralympics has always been a challenge for Games organizers, but the threat of COVID-19 has further raised the stakes as Canadian athletes and officials plan for this summer's competition in Tokyo.
The Paralympics are scheduled to open Aug. 24, 16 days after the closing of the Olympics. Ensuring the living accommodations are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before Canadian athletes arrive is one of the major items on the long to-do list for the Canadian Paralympic Committee.
"It's always a concern, but it's definitely a bigger concern with COVID-19 and the sanitation and level of cleanliness that we're really wanting to see happen," said Catherine Gosselin-Despres, the CPC's executive director of sport.
Tokyo organizers will have crews cleaning the rooms between Games, but the CPC still plans to hire private cleaners.
"Learning from experience, we try to really kind of self-manage to make sure it's to the level we want," Gosselin-Despres said. "We're probably going to have a provider coming in and do kind of our own level of hospital-type cleaning and really making sure it's at the level we're expecting."
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There's a chance a Canadian company could be contracted for the job and would continue working throughout the Paralympics.
"It's probably easier for language purposes," Gosselin-Despres said. "We're definitely looking at all options.
"You can rely so much with the organizing committee for their cleaning, [but] with COVID it's sensitive having people you don't know in the space where an athlete is. We're really trying to control our processes with people that we know, have screened. Really focus on the health and safety of the whole team."
One advantage this year, the Paralympic team will be moving into the same rooms previously used by Canada's Olympic athletes during the Games.
"There's a lot of cultural differences," Gosselin-Despres said. "Sometimes we've been after different countries and it was not like people take care as much of the building or the furniture or the spaces."
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When dealing with COVID, Gosselin-Despres said there no research to suggest Paralympic athletes are more susceptible to catching the virus. There is concern COVID's symptoms could have a greater impact on some people with disabilities.
Many spinal cord injury athletes have compromised immune systems, she said. Other Para-athletes have degenerative diseases.
"There's not clear research on what would happen," she said.
Like the Olympics, the Paralympics were delayed a year over concerns caused by the global pandemic. The Paralympics are expected to attract 4,400 athletes competing in 22 sports.
Canada is sending a contingent of around 300 people, which includes about 130 athletes along with coaches, medical personnel and support staff, said Gosselin-Despres. It's a smaller team than the 400 to 450 that attended Paralympics in London and Rio de Janeiro.
No guarantee Paralympics will happen
Michael Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University's department of sport management who studies major games and the Olympic movement, said there's no guarantee the Paralympics will happen.
Motivated by money and concerns about tarnishing the Olympic brand, the International Olympic Committee will proceed with the Summer Games, said Naraine. But an incident like a COVID outbreak at the Olympics could put the Paralympics in jeopardy.
"If something bad happens at [the Olympics] I would not be surprised if they forego the Paralympics," he said. "If it's able-bodied versus Para, unfortunately, the sacrificial lamb would be the parasport games."
Gosselin-Despres said that scenario is "something we have talked about."
"We have to always kind of plan for the worst," she said. "We're really confident that everything is going to be managed very well."
Swimmer Camille Berube, who is hoping to qualify for her third Paralympics, said a cancellation "would be heartbreaking, there will be tears." But the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many events that have impacted people's lives.
"Everyone is struggling through this," she said. "If it comes down to the Gems being cancelled, it was just another event where people are not going to go."
Simpler Games, better Games?
Questions about travel schedules, testing procedures and even how athletes will eat during the Games still must be answered. It could be spring before friends and family know if they can travel to Tokyo to watch.
"I know our team is going to be fine," Gosselin-Despres said. "But maybe it's not the best thing for parents to go travelling in conditions of COVID."
Berube tries to block out all the noise surrounding the Paralympics.
"There's only so much I can control as an athlete," she said. "I focus on what's happening today. And today I went to the pool and I was able to train, and I had a good workout.
"I keep reminding myself that London was different than Rio. London was an experience, Rio was another experience. Tokyo is going to be another experience. It might be different."
Being different could even be better.
"We might realize that a more simple Games, which is probably what they're aiming for . . . is a better Games," she said. "I try to see things with a positive light."