Canada’s Margaret Mac Neil reacts after winning the women’s 100m butterfly final at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Monday, July 22, 2019. When COVID-19 shut down the NCAA swimming season last March, Margaret Mac Neil packed up her car and drove home to London, Ont., from the University of Michigan. In the whirlwind days that followed, Canada announced it wouldn’t compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games if they were held as scheduled. The Games were eventually postponed to 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lee Jin-man

Canada’s Margaret Mac Neil reacts after winning the women’s 100m butterfly final at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Monday, July 22, 2019. When COVID-19 shut down the NCAA swimming season last March, Margaret Mac Neil packed up her car and drove home to London, Ont., from the University of Michigan. In the whirlwind days that followed, Canada announced it wouldn’t compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games if they were held as scheduled. The Games were eventually postponed to 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lee Jin-man

For Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams, 2020 a year of conviction and frustration

Canadian athletes also dealt with the frustration of lighter restrictions in other countries

When COVID-19 shut down the NCAA swimming season last March, Margaret Mac Neil packed up her car and drove home to London, Ont., from the University of Michigan.

In the whirlwind days that followed, Canada announced it wouldn’t compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games if they were held as scheduled. The Games were eventually postponed to 2021.

Mac Neil spent the ensuing several weeks of lockdown swimming in her family’s backyard pool.

There was snow on the ground. The pool was 13 metres long and shaped like a kidney bean, which wasn’t the typical high-performance sport environment for a world butterfly champion.

“But it worked. I could maintain my feeling of the water and my technique, I guess,” Mac Neil said. “But it definitely wasn’t the same as swimming in a normal environment.”

The 20-year-old is one of hundreds of Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes whose laser focus on the Games was upended by the global pandemic.

“COVID has been the toughest competitor we’ve ever faced as a high-performance sport community,” said Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger.

Led by double Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan, Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams took the bold stance of withdrawing from the Tokyo Summer Games two days before the International Olympic Committee and organizing committee announced their postponement to 2021.

The Canadian team’s position of human health and safety trumping global competition stood out in the confusing, early days of the pandemic.

“When push came to shove and we realized how serious COVID-19 was, Canadian athletes far and wide came together and said they need to put their health, their family’s health, their community’s health, first, and decided they wouldn’t go to Tokyo in the summer of 2020,” Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive officer David Shoemaker said.

“I think we’ll look back at 2020 and realize that it’s another chapter in Team Canada’s book on defining what victory is. Victory isn’t always about the real, relentless pursuit of a gold medal. It includes fair play and sportsmanship and now ideals about the health and safety of your community.”

After drawing their line in the sand, athletes joined fellow Canadians in having plans, dreams and finances disrupted by COVID-19.

Training facilities shuttered for weeks, international competition schedules decimated and travel complicated and fraught with infection risk were among the stresses for athletes working out in living rooms, garages and backyards.

Antoine Valois-Fortier, a bronze medallist in judo at the 2012 Olympics, became a runner.

“I had never run much, and I immediately understood why: I’m not very good at it,” the 30-year-old said.

“Running became almost in a weird way like meditation. You get negative news all day, a lot of people struggling, and so I just put my headphones in and go for a long run and would just feel much better.”

Canadian athletes also dealt with the frustration of lighter restrictions in other countries, allowing their rivals to train and compete more than they could in 2020.

“That definitely has been on my mind,” Mac Neil said. “For sure I think (the Olympics) are not going to be a level playing field because people have been under certain restrictions, (while) most parts of Canada are shut down again. It’s not ideal, but I guess we just have to make the best of it.”

Canada is a winter-sport powerhouse. Those athletes weren’t spared the pandemic’s destructive force.

World women’s hockey and curling championships and world figure skating championships in Canada were cancelled in March, as were multiple World Cups the country would have hosted in 2020.

Winter-sport athletes’ seasons are delayed or curtailed with cancellations at a crucial time heading into the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Prize money, appearance fees and personal sponsorships that make up an athlete’s financial trapline dwindled or disappeared.

“The economic challenge compounds the difficulty for an athlete, and the postponement of one year, according to our statistics, on average costs an Olympic hopeful another $28,000,” Shoemaker said.

Canadian sport federations leaning heavily on revenue streams from major, international televised games and tournaments at home and abroad took a hit.

Tennis Canada, for example, lost $17 million when the men’s and women’s professional tournaments in Montreal and Toronto were cancelled.

Hockey, soccer, curling, rugby and figure skating also draw significant revenue from TV rights and the accompanying corporate sponsorship.

“What we would call the big six, the large-event sports that host major competitions that are essentially entertainment, all over television with huge audiences, many of them have been decimated,” Merklinger said.

A financial stabilizer of Canada’s high-performance sport system in the pandemic is the federal government’s commitment to maintain funding — roughly $200 million annually — through to March 2022, said Merklinger.

National sport organizations and institutes also received a $34.5-million top-up in COVID-19 emergency funding from Canada’s Heritage Department in May.

Shoemaker says the COC’s 27 corporate sponsors are sticking with the Canadian team.

“They’re with us through Tokyo, and they’re with us for this foreseeable future,” he said. “We’ll be ready for Tokyo. We’ll be ready for Beijing.”

Three-time world para-triathlon champion Stefan Daniel said if there’s a positive to be taken from the roller-coaster last few months, it’s a renewed love for his sport.

“Having racing taking taken away kind of reminded me that I started sport because I like being active. Training was kind of what drove me, but I was actually able to stay really motivated throughout all of this year, which was pretty surprising,” the 23-year-old Calgarian said.

“I also realized that I can’t be a triathlete forever. So, when everything comes back, I’m really going to enjoy it as best as I can and not take it for granted. I know it won’t last forever.”

Mac Neil found solace in her Michigan coach, Mike Bottom, who was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.

“Hearing his perspective on that, he definitely has helped to show that it isn’t the end of the world and that you can do something positive with it,” she said.

“For him it was coaching after that. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and he’s definitely helped us to see that.”

A silver lining of 2020 for Merklinger is the 28 organizations that run high-performance sport in Canada worked together on a task force to get athletes back to training and competing.

“We’re more collaborative,” she said. “We are definitely more resilient in every aspect of the system.”

Risk-mitigation checklists and return-to-sport guidelines produced in June not only for elite athletes, but for provincial associations and local clubs, injected some confidence back into the sport system.

“It might not be exactly the same training they were doing before the pandemic, but virtually all of the national summer and winter sport organizations have returned to training in a way that’s going to help them be ready for both Tokyo and Beijing,” Merklinger said.

“To varying degrees, athletes, coaches and staff are able to return to competition. That depends on the individual sport and where the competition in question might be, even across Canada.”

Lori Ewing and Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusOlympics

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Food trucks will be allowed to operate in several Sooke parks beginning May 1. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sooke’s food truck pilot project under scrutiny

Councillor questions impact food trucks will have on nearby restaurants

A walk for autism awareness. (Black Press Media file photo)
COLUMN: Autism acceptance, not autism awareness

Elizabeth Sparling is the mother of a 24-year-old son with Autism Spectrum Disorder

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
PHOTOS: Vehicle driven into Saanich Walmart removed after two trapped workers rescued

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Tons of bottles were donated during bottle drives in Sooke and Langford on March 27. The funds raised from the drives will help a local family stay with their daughter during her leukemia treatments in Vancouver. (Photos: Glendora Scarfone)
Sooke, Langford bottle drives help cover family’s costs of staying with daughter during cancer treatments

More than $11,900 raised to help Shae Hanilton’s family stay with her in Vancouver

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Most Read