Pandemic poses preparation challenges for Canada's Tokyo-bound teams

·7 min read

Getting a bunch of people together from across Canada to play sports against a bunch of people from another country is logistically complex at the best of times.

Stir in a pandemic discouraging international travel and invasion of personal space, plus the clock ticking down toward the athletic moment of their dreams, and athletes and coaches in team sports have a lot on their minds.

Eight Canadian teams had qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics when the Games, originally scheduled to start July 24, were postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 virus.

Women's softball, basketball, soccer, water polo and rugby sevens, as well as men's field hockey, volleyball and rugby sevens are the most for Canada at a non-boycotted Summer Games since hosting in Montreal in 1976.

Olympic preparation plans out the window when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the sporting world to its knees, Canada's teams are re-charting a path to the 2021 podium in an unprecedented landscape.

"The complexities with planning team sports for sure are huge," Water Polo Canada high-performance director Justin Oliveira said

"You're travelling, usually, a very large group of people that are having contact with another group of people in competition. So how does that look within health guidelines and bubbles?"

Canada's eight teams at least have a berth in Tokyo's Games as the lodestar around which they can formulate backup, contingency and B to Z plans.

Canada's men's basketball, water polo, baseball and soccer teams have yet to play in qualification tournaments, which were also postponed from 2020 to 2021.

"I'm grateful, very grateful, that we're at least in a place where the work we're putting in is actually towards preparation for the event and not preparation to go to an event in hopes to get to the event," national women's softball coach Mark Smith said.

A capsule look at the eight Canadian teams that have qualified for Tokyo, their preparations in a pandemic and world ranking in parentheses:

Women's softball (3)

Twenty athletes chasing 15 Olympic roster spots are training on their own, wherever they live. Fall camps in B.C. and Ontario were called off because of the pandemic. Simultaneous training camps on each side of the border - some Canadian coaches and players live in the U.S. - are planned for January. Smith hopes the team can travel to a warmer climate outside North America in February to play games against other countries.

"If there's something that keeps me awake at night, I guess it's the hope that we're able to make that happen, because that to me will be the telltale sign for all of it," Smith said.

"If we're not able to do that, you start to question whether there's really even going to be an Olympic Games."

Women's rugby sevens (3)

Canada's last international competition was a March tournament in Montpellier, France. The women's and men's sevens sides are currently training in separate cohorts in Langford, B.C. Twenty women competing for 12 Olympic roster spots congregated there in August, but didn't start contact scrimmages until this month. Canada would have soon departed for Cape Town, South Africa, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to start the 2020-21 World Rugby Women's Sevens Series if those tournaments weren't cancelled. Canada has accepted an invitation to a regional tournament in Spain in February and may go to another tournament in Australia in March.

"One of the things that's a big deterrent for us actually accepting invitations and going these tournaments is when we return home, the isolation as it is now, is 14 days," head coach John Tait said.

"There's going to be a lot of competition probably jammed in the few months before the Olympics to help teams get ready."

Women's basketball (4)

Canada's last international action was punching their Tokyo ticket in February. Four players were in the WNBA "wubble" this summer. The 20 athletes competing for 12 Olympic jobs are either now playing pro internationally or in the NCAA. Basketball Canada women's high-performance director Denise Dignard says the next time the Canadian team will be together is February, 2021, for a camp. The only competition on the horizon right now is the June 20-27 AmeriCup in a city yet to be named.

"We live to actually bring people together and actually be on the court as a team," Dignard said. "Health and safety of the athletes is the number one priority. I think it's the uncertainty around when we come back and what that exactly looks like."

Women's water polo (6)

Seventeen athletes have centralized in Montreal since September. They're in the water 10 times a week, but are currently allowed just 15 minutes of contact scrimmaging per day. Canada's last international competition was in December, 2019. The World League Intercontinental Cup is scheduled to start April 26 in Indianapolis, which would be a span of almost 16 months between international games for Canada. Olympic rosters are 12 athletes.

"At a certain point we'll need some international competition against some of our opponents," Oliveira said. "It's going to take time to get back up to that competitive speed. You need enough competition before the Olympics to get yourself ready."

Men's rugby sevens (8)

Within days of host Canada winning bronze March 8 in a World Rugby Sevens Series stop in Vancouver, the pandemic shut down the rest of their 2019-20 season. Like the women, the men would have soon departed for Cape Town and Dubai to start this season. Head coach Henry Paul says Canada has a tentative invitation to an Australian tournament in early March. Eighteen men are vying for a dozen Olympic roster spots.

"Everything is very fluid," Paul said. "There's a lot of unknowns still."

Women's soccer (8)

Canada hasn't played a match since a 2-2 draw with Brazil on March 10 in Calais, France. Bev Priestman was named new head coach Oct. 28. Of the 28 players in the national team pool, 13 are currently playing pro in Europe (four on loan from the NWSL) , 11 just completed a fall stint in the NWSL and four are NCAA players. Olympic rosters are 18 players. The Canadian women won't be together again until the February break in the international calendar. Priestman is looking at different European tournaments at that time. She hopes Canada, winners of two straight Olympic bronze medals, can get in at least six or seven matches before Tokyo.

"I'm obviously new in the role and dying to get the team together," Priestman said. "The sooner I can get contact with the players and start to implement some of my ideas, that's one of the things that keeps me awake."

Men's volleyball (10)

Canada has players spread around the globe with their respective professional clubs. How many matches and how much training they get depends on how the pandemic impacts their respective leagues. The men will congregate at the national training centre in Gatineau, Que., next spring in hopes the FIVB's World League operates before Tokyo. Head coach Glenn Hoag is concerned about getting enough competition to whittle 18 players down to an Olympic roster of 12.

"Training is one thing," Hoag said. "We're facing high-level competition at the Olympics. You want to assess your players in a high-level competition to see how they're doing and per position, what our needs are to do well at the Olympics."

Men's field hockey (10)

The national squad is a hybrid of players centralized in Vancouver and others playing pro in England, Belgium and the Netherlands. Field Hockey Canada incorporated developmental team players in hopes of running an intrasquad series the month of November in Vancouver. The series can't start until public health restrictions lift on outdoor gatherings. FHC is in talks with reigning Olympic gold medallist Argentina to travel to that country for a possible January series. Canada also has a preliminary invitation to the Aslan Shaw Cup in Malaysia in June. Sixteen players will be chosen for the Olympic roster.

"The main problem is trying to make sure we get the guys games," FHC high-performance director Adam Janssen said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press