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Canadian athletes focused on Tokyo, despite uncertainty surrounding Summer Olympics

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As rumours swirl about the fate of this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, some Canadian athletes say they are focused on keeping their head in the game rather than dwelling on the uncertainty that lies ahead.

“I’ve kind of learned to live in the moment, if COVID has taught me anything,” said swimmer Maggie MacNeil, who qualified for the Games and is currently the world champion in the 100-metre butterfly.

“Hopefully this summer will happen, and I think that’s definitely what keeps me motivated.”

The Times of London caused a stir last week when, citing an unnamed senior official, it reported that the Japanese government had “privately concluded” the Tokyo Olympics would have to be cancelled because of the pandemic. 

The report touched off a hailstorm of worry and confusion in the sports world. 

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refuted the report, claiming the Olympics will indeed go ahead on July 23.

The Summer Games, which were originally slated for 2020, were postponed last March because of COVID-19. The Summer Olympics were last held in Brazil in 2016.

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MacNeil told The Current‘s Matt Galloway that she’s been thinking about the Olympics since she first started swimming competitively at the age of eight.

With all the questions looming over the sporting event right now, the London, Ont., native said it’s more important than ever that she concentrates on training, so she’s prepared for whatever the future holds.

Canadian wrestler Jordie Steen, who also qualified for the Summer Games, is of the same mindset.

“I mean, I could blow a knee out tomorrow and not be able to compete,” he told Galloway. “So I can’t think of the worst-case scenario. I’ve just got to think of the best-case scenario.”

Plus, the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games hasn’t been all bad news for Steen. 

Although he was disappointed by the decision, he said it’s given him an unprecedented opportunity to prepare.

“I’ve never had this much time to focus on one tournament,” he explained. “To have close to a full year to focus on one tournament and beating 16 guys in a bracket has been a lot of fun.”

Canadian wrestler Jordan Steen wears the bronze medal at the award ceremony for the Men’s Freestyle 97 kilogram event during the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Steen qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games, which were postponed last year until the summer of 2021. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Could pandemic create uneven playing field? 

Like athletes, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker was caught off guard by the Times report last week. But he remains confident the Games will go ahead in July, stressing that officials are also staying attuned to public health advice.

He told Galloway the IOC is set to release its “playbook” for the Olympics next week, which will reveal more information about quarantine, travel and testing plans for athletes, as well as a “very sophisticated bubbling system.”

People remain divided, however, about whether holding the Olympics during a pandemic is the right move.

Some polls have suggested that people in Japan do not want the Games to go forward. 

In a survey conducted this month by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, 38 per cent of respondents said the Games should be cancelled. Another 39 per cent of respondents said the Games should be postponed again, while 16 per cent wanted the Games to go ahead. NHK said it surveyed 1,278 people at random for its telephone poll.

David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, expressed confidence that the Games will go ahead this year. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Morgan Campbell, a CBC Sports senior contributor who writes opinion columns, told Galloway the pandemic’s unequal impact on countries around the world also raises questions about whether the Olympics will be fair.

“When you look at any … pro sport or for-profit sport that has decided to try to press on through this pandemic, like so much of what determines success or failure is managing how you deal with the virus,” Campbell said. 

“And in general, people in cities with more money can ride this thing out better than people without the resources can.”

The same concept can be applied to the Olympics, he said.

Athletes coming to the Games from countries where COVID-19 is being well-managed, for example, may have a better chance of staying healthy and performing well in the Games, compared to athletes from countries struggling to keep COVID-19 in check, he said.

Morgan Campbell, a CBC Sports senior contributor, says athletes from wealthier nations that have been able to manage COVID well may fare better at these games. (Submitted by Morgan Campbell)

Regardless, Campbell is confident the Games will go ahead, because there’s a lot of money at stake. In a column published Thursday, he reported that the International Olympic Committee is scheduled to collect $1 billion in broadcast rights fees tied to this summer’s event.

“Even if you don’t condone it, it makes sense,” he said. 

Shoemaker agreed there is money at stake — some of which he said could support burgeoning young athletes. He said the Canadian Olympic Committee uses its profits to invest in “a sports system that we think has a meaningful impact on young boys and girls across the country.”

But above all, pushing forward with the Tokyo Summer Games could serve as a “beacon of hope for Olympic dreams,” said Shoemaker. And for athletes like MacNeil, he added, those dreams have been a decade in the making, for an event that only comes around every four years.

“I think it’s really very important for them, but also important for Canadians,” said Shoemaker. “I think that can be very meaningful … as a symbol and as part of our hope in this recovery from the pandemic.”


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Paul MacInnis.

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