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

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

Half of the most expensive homes are on 2080 Mackenzie Crt, which is across the street from Revelstoke Mountain Resort. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The 10 most valuable homes in Revelstoke for 2020

Combined, the properties are worth more than $35M

A map released by the BCCDC on Jan. 15 shows the number of new COVID-19 cases reported for each local health area between Jan. 3 and 9. (BCCDC Image)
Salmon Arm and Vernon see increase in new COVID cases, curve flattening elsewhere

The rate of new cases is levelling off in Kelowna, Penticton and Revelstoke.

Snowboarders at Revelstoke Mountain Resort heading for the gondola. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
Updated: Another 16 COVID-19 cases for Revelstoke

The cases were identified between Jan. 3 and 9

Interior Health update. File photo.
86 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

The new deaths are from Heritage Square, a long-term care facility in Vernon

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

Dastkar, a new furniture store in Vernon, features handmade, unique furniture carved from wood and inlaid with brass in the Chiniot style. The business located on 43rd Avenue was started in December 2020 but is currently unstaffed due to COVID-19 staffing shortages. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
PHOTOS: Vernon’s hidden handmade furniture store

Owners of Shahi Pakwan Indian restaurant opened the South Asian furniture store in December 2020

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19: Organizer of Kelowna anti-restriction protest ticketed for third time

The individual’s latest ticket for $2,300 was handed out by RCMP at an anti-lockdown rally Saturday

Mount Boucherie Secondary School is one of three Kelowna schools with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to an update from the school district Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 confirmed at 3 Kelowna schools

Interior Health has confirmed exposures at Mount Boucherie, Springvalley and South Rutland schools

Lake Country native Evan-Riley Brown is in the cast for the new film Journey To Royal: A WW II Rescue Mission to be released on video on demand and streaming services on Feb. 2. (Contributed)
Okanagan actor lands role in WW II movie

Evan-Riley Brown, from Lake Country, cast in production labelled as hybrid of a feature film and documentary called Journey To Royal: a WW II Rescue Mission.

Most Read