By David Song, April 2 2020 —
Amidst an unprecedented pandemic that has changed every facet of life as we know it, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) obstinately stood its ground. Up until Tuesday of last week, IOC members behaved as if holding an Olympic Games in late July was still possible. Despite the odds, and despite all prevailing wisdom, they were slow to acknowledge reality.
Then, Canada sent a message.
On Sunday, March 22, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) made a difficult but necessary call. For the sake of public health and safety, Team Canada would not be sending its athletes to Tokyo 2020. In the same breath, Canadian sports commissions joined with the World Health Organization in an earnest plea to the IOC — postpone the Olympics.
Two days after that, the IOC finally capitulated, announcing the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics to a future date no later than summer 2021.
For the most part, Canadian athletes and their fans expressed bittersweet support for the COC’s decision, but that support was not unanimous. Among others, Canadian hurdler Sage Watson posted on her Instagram feed that withdrawing from the Olympics seemed “a little premature,” and that Canada’s unilateral decision to pull out showed a troubling lack of unity. A few other athletes, including South African Dominique Scott-Efurd, voiced their agreement with Watson.
I enjoyed watching Watson compete in Rio 2016, and I appreciate her as one of Canada’s top threats in the 400-metre events. The Olympic Games sparked my lifelong interest in sports, so I understand as well as anyone how hard it is to avoid being emotional about them. But, with all due respect, Watson’s response to the COC’s decision misses the point.
Any sane person would have called for the Olympics to be postponed well before the IOC actually did so. COVID-19 represents uncharted waters, and no reputable source has predicted that the disease would be fully under control by July. Even if the pandemic appears to subside in a couple of months, we would only be risking a second major outbreak by holding a flagship international event too early.
Even if Tokyo 2020 were to proceed as originally planned, it would not feature the calibre of competition befitting of an Olympic competition. Any athlete will tell you about the importance of timing and momentum when preparing for a marquee event, but the vast majority of sporting competitions and Olympic trials had been postponed or canceled well before the Games themselves were pushed back. Such a severe disruption to the athletes’ training schedules would have left everyone in subpar shape to compete on the world stage this July.
Watson’s response to Canada’s withdrawal from Tokyo is perfectly understandable. She, like many others, had trained relentlessly and put a piece of her soul into preparing for the Olympics this summer. Having it postponed is not an easy pill to swallow, nor should it be.
Yet, in times like these, we should look to the words of hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, who praised the unselfishness of the Canadians who decided to pull out of Tokyo. Nothing is more important than public health at this moment, and rather than accusing Canada of not showing unity with other countries, we should be proud that our nation took leadership in doing the right thing.