Power of Sport initiative hopes to stem inactivity brought on by pandemic restrictions

·4 min read
People exercise at an outdoor skating rink during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto.
People exercise at an outdoor skating rink during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto.

(Nathan Denette/Canadian Press - image credit)

Adam van Koeverden misses the 'three H's' from our pre-pandemic world: hugs, handshakes and high-fives.

When all three of those return, a fourth "Capital-H" should fall into place.

"That's our health, physical and mental, getting together and being able to cheer for each other," the Olympic champion said.

Van Koeverden, 39, now serves as a federal member of parliament for the district of Milton, Ont. One of his duties in that role is to serve as secretary to the Minister of Heritage (Sport), Steven Guilbeault.

As a three-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medallist, van Koeverden said he wanted to get into politics in part to promote an active lifestyle in Canada.

Now, as COVID-19 continues raging across the country, the former sprint kayaker sees people stuck at home more than ever.

"I think there's a lot of barriers between people and families and particularly young kids and physical activity. One of them is currently obviously the pandemic and closures and stress and anxiety about gatherings and everything. And those are very warranted," he said.

"But as we come out of this, I think we really want to fight against some of the longstanding barriers between people and access. We're talking about barriers between people and their best selves, people and their healthiest possible selves. We have an ability to alleviate some of those stresses."

WATCH | Youth athletes' mental health hampered by community sport cancellations:

Van Koeverden spoke to CBC Sports to promote the Power of Sport, a grassroots initiative by the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), all national sport organizations (NSOs), Own the Podium, and CBC Sports to encourage Canadians to get more active.

He says parents reach out to him constantly with frustrations over a lack of access to community sport for their children.

"The solution is really, really inexpensive, and it takes and requires investment and physical activity, programming, capacity and infrastructure across the country," van Koeverden said.

Van Koeverden suggested making community sports more accessible by making them free for certain families.

Instead of relying on volunteer coaches, commissioners and programmers, the Toronto native advocated for further government and NSO resources to help make that active lifestyle a reality.

"I think we can always do more. And I think we should absolutely do more. And certainly during the pandemic, what's clear is that these investments are ones that are very, very uniquely positioned in their ability to make quick change," van Koeverden said. "Our mental and physical health depend on sport and physical activity, recreational infrastructure and ecosystem in Canada. And if that ecosystem isn't healthy, then we won't be either."

Still, it remains tough to reconcile the ongoing stay-at-home orders throughout Canada with the idea of physical activity – for everyone.

Van Koeverden said he's been challenged to get his exercise in, especially with the recent snowfall in the Toronto region that made one run "trepidatious.

Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

'Movement is medicine'

"Movement is medicine for me and without it, I'm not myself. The transition from being an athlete to being a politician for me wasn't swift or easy," van Koeverden said.

"I went from being really focused on my own performance and my own fitness and just a little bit of work in not-for-profit and charitable spaces, and now the vast majority of my work is at work, which provides a great opportunity to focus on solutions for other people working from home."

With many gyms and rinks closed, Olympic and Paralympic athletes have had to get creative in training. One basketball player returned home from overseas to local parks, where her parents doubled as rebounders. More recently, Canada's speed skaters trained on picturesque frozen mountain lakes due to the closure of Calgary's Olympic Oval. They then went and won five medals in February's world championships.

Meanwhile, those simply looking for regular exercise have turned increasingly to outdoor winter sports like cross-country skiing, which has seen a 50 per cent increase in participation, per Nordiq Canada. Frozen ponds have been used more than ever for skating and curling, while any park with a snowy hill can quickly become a local luge track.

"I believe strongly in the power of sport — not just in Canada, but around the world — to change and improve lives. And I think we need to focus on that energy and that positive momentum as we get out of COVID-19," van Koeverden said.