Student athletes in northeastern Ontario sidelined due to COVID-19 restrictions

·3 min read
Japhet John, a fourth-year geography student at Algoma University, and competitive wrestler, says he won't be able to train or compete until after Jan. 26. Provincial COVID-19 restrictions prevent university athletes from training or competing indoors. (Supplied by Japhet John - image credit)
Japhet John, a fourth-year geography student at Algoma University, and competitive wrestler, says he won't be able to train or compete until after Jan. 26. Provincial COVID-19 restrictions prevent university athletes from training or competing indoors. (Supplied by Japhet John - image credit)

Like other university athletes in Ontario, Japhet John won't have the chance to compete or train for most of January.

John is a fourth-year geography student at Algoma University, and a competitive wrestler.

Due to an injury early in the season, he missed out on three competitions at other universities last year.

And with new provincial COVID-19 restrictions, which came into effect on Jan. 5, he will be unable to compete, or train indoors, until Jan. 26.

"It's really frustrating because a lot of sports already had their seasons when there was a drop in COVID (cases)," John said.

Ontario's varsity athletes won't be able to compete or train indoors while the restrictions are in place, but some professional and "elite" amateur athletes will be able to continue with their respective sports.

The province's "return-to-play" framework includes a list of athletes and leagues that can continue indoor competition and training with strict safety measures in place.

The list includes athletes training for the Olympics, professional leagues such as the NHL, CFL and NBA, and some "elite" amateur leagues, including the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association.

But university athletes don't make the cut.

"I believe that we are elite athletes," John said, referring to himself and other students who compete in university athletics.

"We might not be considered professional, but we have put in a lot of work to kind of get to the level that we're at," he added.

Erik White/CBC
Erik White/CBC

Peter Hellstrom, Laurentian University's director of athletics, said he was baffled by the province's decision not to include university athletes on its list of exceptions.

"There's a lack of knowledge and understanding of how elite these student athletes are," he said. "I'm not sure where the government's missing the boat on the elite side of things, but it's disappointing."

Hellstrom said former Laurentian students have gone on to have successful careers in sport, such as Olympic rower Carling Zeeman and Kadre Gray, who plays for the Ottawa BlackJacks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

He added many of the amateur leagues that made the province's list feed athletes into university athletics. Many OHL and Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association players, for example, go on to play for university teams later in their careers.

Hellstrom said he accepts that university athletes should not be competing while there is a surge in COVID-19 cases across the province, but they should be able to train.

"We probably have more protocols in place, and are better at the guidelines, than some of the leagues listed on that list," he said.

Decisions based on medical advice

In an email to CBC News, Ontario Premiere Doug Ford's office said decisions related to the province's return-to-play framework were based on advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

"Our government is doing everything possible to blunt the transmission of COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading Omicron variant," said press secretary Alexandra Adamo in the email.

"These time-limited measures will help in our fight against this virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed."

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