COC says current danger to athletes prompted decision to withdraw from July Olympics

CBC

David Shoemaker, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said Monday the global COVID-19 pandemic is "bigger than sport" and the organization felt it had no choice but to lobby for a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and withhold Team Canada if the Games begin as scheduled in July.

Shoemaker said protecting Canadian athletes, their families and friends is the only focus right now.

"We talk so much about owning the podium and our race to gold medals, but this is the wrong time to focus on that. I feel satisfied with this decision," he said Monday of the organization's announcement on Sunday. "It was not easy in large part because the impact this has on Canadian Olympic hopefuls is unimaginable.

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"I've done my level-best to try and put myself in their shoes and understand how this would feel. It's why having Tricia Smith as our president, a four-time Olympian who was part of the boycott in 1980, was so important. And to listen and follow her leadership on this."

Canada did not participate in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

WATCH | Athletes not practising social distancing:

Shoemaker said while the COC's decision on Sunday was a difficult one, the turning point came as the federal government and public health officials ratchet up pressure on the importance of social distancing. That's when pulling the team first started being considered.

"With all of the advice of our chief medical officer and our community of health officials that he has access to, we came to realize that we had been asking ourselves the wrong question," Shoemaker said. "The question wasn't whether it would be safe in four months for a team of roughly of 450 athletes and hundreds of other mission team members to go to Tokyo. The issue was, was it fair and safe to ask Canadian athletes to train in Canada? Was it safe for them and their families and communities in Canada? And we realized the answer was no."

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the COC's decision as an example of the social distancing required to prevent the spread of the disease.

"Team Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Team made the tough decision not to send athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer," Trudeau said in his daily briefing in Ottawa. "I know this is heartbreaking for so many people — athletes, coaches, staff and fans.

"But this was absolutely the right call and everyone should follow their lead."

After what Shoemaker called an "active weekend" of around-the-clock conference and video calls, the COC in coordination with the Canadian Paralympic Committee made their decision known — Team Canada would not be attending the Tokyo Olympics if they were to take place as scheduled in July.

WATCH | Canada's chef de mission on Olympic postponement:

In a statement released Sunday night, the COC called on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games until the summer of 2021.

"It was met with tremendous support," Shoemaker said. "No opposition at all from the Athletes Commission. No opposition from the board. No opposition from the national sport organizations."

The announcement came just hours after the IOC said it would take up to four weeks to consider next moves, including postponement.

Cancellation is not on the agenda, the IOC said.

Shoemaker said the COC decision has nothing to do with sending a message to the IOC.

"We made this decision on our own, for own team, and for Canadians," he said. "I was heartened to see the Australian Olympic Committee very quickly followed suit. If this eases the burden for other Olympic committees, and makes it easier to follow, then that would make me happy."

The COC is offering all of their support and resources in helping the IOC come up with the best possible alternatives for the Olympics Games in summer 2021, Shoemaker said.

"Our team craves answers. We crave answers. But we're going to live in some uncertainty over the next little while," Shoemaker said.

The rallying cry for Team Canada now is "Postpone today. Conquer tomorrow."

Shoemaker hopes Canadian athletes get that chance.

"There's no shortage of complexities in making that happen," he said. "But I still come back to the health and safety of Canadians being our paramount concern."

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