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By stating its willingness to walk away from the Tokyo Olympics, Canada placed the safety of its athletes at the forefront and set a strong example for other nations – even as the International Olympics Committee (IOC) struggled before eventually postponing the Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Canada is demonstrating great leadership at a time when it is truly needed,” said Kinesiology professor Angela Schneider, Director for the International Centre for Olympic Studies (ICOS). “They are saying global health is far more significant than sport. A July date for the Games is not feasible, desirable or, more importantly, morally responsible.
“Sport can show leadership even outside sport. It is not just about winning a gold medal; it is about showing the appropriate values and taking the correct stand. Canada has done that.”
Last weekend, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) issued joint statements saying they refuse to send teams to Tokyo unless the Games are pushed back, ideally for one year.
“While we recognize the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community,” the committees stated.
“This is not solely about athlete health – it is about public health. With COVID-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes – and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community – to continue training towards these Games.”
The Tokyo Olympics were scheduled to start July 24 with the Paralympics to follow on Aug. 25.
“Canada was willing to step up and say that the health of its athletes is first and foremost,” said Kinesiology professor Laura Misener, Director of the School of Kinesiology and an Olympic and Paralympic Games researcher.
“Clearly, the committees did not feel there was sufficient cause to believe that the teams could be protected. It was a difficult decision given the enormous amount of time and effort from athletes. But Canada has often been at the forefront of making bold, difficult decisions about the rights and protection of athletes.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the COC/CPC decision.
“Team Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Team made the tough decision not to send athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer,” Trudeau said in his daily briefing in Ottawa. “I know this is heartbreaking for so many people – athletes, coaches, staff and fans. But this was absolutely the right call and everyone should follow their lead.”
Schneider nodded to the leadership of the COC, especially President Tricia Smith, who built “impressive” consensus on the decision among the organization, athletes and national sporting organizations.
Schneider, a former Olympian, further applauded Canada’s offer to help the IOC/IPC navigate the complexities of rescheduling the Games. “They are not just criticizing. They are not just saying the IOC has it all wrong. Canada should be proud of this. This is appropriate. This is right. This is moral leadership.”
Misener noted that the decision is consistent with the country’s place in the international sporting landscape.
“Canada is often at the forefront of decision-making on a lot of what’s happening on the international stage. It’s nice to see them vocalize and take on a strong leadership role on something we believe in terms of human rights – and that’s what Canada is known for,” she said.
“There are a lot of people talking about the fact that Canada steps up and makes decisions when it’s an issue about human rights – that, in this case, we’re not going to allow our athletes to go into an unsafe environment that we’re not comfortable with.”
Canada led a chorus of IOC critics, including several nations and sporting organizations calling for the Games to be pushed back. National Olympic committees in Brazil, Slovenia and Norway are pushing for a postponement. Both governing bodies for track and field and swimming in the United States have called for a postponement, and Swimming Canada later backed its American counterpart.
On Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach agreed to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Games until 2021 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The organizing body had been considering numerous options, but cancelling the Games entirely was never being considered.
Although admittedly “a difficult one,” the decision to delay hinged primarily on economic and commercial concerns for the IOC, Misener said.
“There are a lot of commercial interests at play – a lot,” she said. “Look at the television rights. Look at the commercial entities from the top sponsors all the way down to the smaller sponsors in the host city. All of these things are driving the decision-making.”
About half of the IOC’s revenues come from its media partners – and three-quarters of that comes from NBC, which paid $7.75 billion in 2014 for the U.S. rights through 2032.
The networks and sponsors had been largely silent on the issue of postponement. But their voice in the discussion could help all involved.
“They need to step up and help. They need to support the IOC and IPC (International Paralympic Committee) with understanding during these difficult times,” Schneider said. “Show some corporate leadership and citizenship and help. Olympic committees are starting to do that – why can’t the sponsors and broadcasters show leniency and flexibility and help the IOC deal with this?”
Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the Games have been cancelled only during the world wars in 1916, 1940 and 1944. There have been three major boycotts in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
Through it all, however, the Olympics has survived and thrived, Schneider said.
“There is a history there – one strongly rooted in perseverance, in a celebration of humanity persevering. But there is a time when you have to step back and say we cannot do this anymore.”
She continued, “A warfare analogy and metaphor work. Only this time it is a biological warfare against a virus we just don’t know how to deal with yet. It is appropriate for the IOC to take that extra step and make public health a priority.”
Canadian Press contributed to this report.