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Dr. Mike Wilkinson recently took part in a teleconference with members of the IOC that targeted a July 24 starting date for the Tokyo Olympics. That was 10 days ago. In coronavirus time, that’s 10 months. Or 10 years. Still not sure.
But here’s what’s happened since.
Five days ago, the IOC said it was still considering all scenarios with the Summer Games as athletes from all over the world were still in full Olympic training mode.
Three days ago, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it wouldn’t send a team to Tokyo in 2020.
Two days ago, Australia joined the Canadians, as the IOC announced it would take four weeks to study the matter.
That was Monday. On Tuesday, the IOC made a new announcement: The Games “must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than the summer of 2021.”
Wilkinson, the COC’s chief medical officer who’s been involved in every twist and turn of this wild ride, was asked what it’s like to be in the eye of the hurricane.
“As I said to you yesterday, or was that Monday? I don’t know what day it is anymore,” Wilkinson said. “But I was talking with Marnie McBean (the decorated rower and Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo) and she said every day feels like a year. So much has happened. I’ve personally never seen anything like this in sports and I don’t think anyone else has. But we’re back to where we should be, looking after the athletes and our community.”
Which might not seem like a lot. In their world, it’s everything.
On Tuesday, the IOC and the Tokyo organizing committee finally came to their senses, postponing the Olympics to a year down the road. In most cases, the IOC usually changes course with the speed and nimbleness of an oil tanker, but they had no choice here.
Lives were, literally, at stake. Public health was in jeopardy. You can’t negotiate with a pandemic, and while the decision to postpone raises any number of logistical and organizational issues, rescheduling an Olympics doesn’t seem like a terribly serious problem in today’s world.
“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC wrote in a statement announcing their decision.
Predictable. You don’t have to worry about congratulating the IOC because they’ll do it for you every single time. But even if there was only one ending to this story, its importance can’t be overstated.
There were two issues at play here — one to do with sports, the other with COVID-19 — and the scope and gravity of the latter outweighs the former to an illogical degree. We trust this point needs no further amplification here, but if you still had doubts, we refer you to Wilkinson, a man who has a foot in both worlds.
“It’s totally based on the health and welfare of the athletes and the community,” he said. “It just got to the stage where it was no longer ethical to ask athletes to do this. They were putting themselves at risk. They were putting their families and their community at risk.
“They were trying to go about their training like it was normal business when the rest of society is self-isolating. We couldn’t in good conscience ask the athletes to keep doing this.”
It was the athletes’ voices, in fact, that were among the loudest while the IOC was dithering. Great Britain’s Matthew Pinsent, the four-time gold medallist in rowing, posted this on Twitter when IOC president Thomas Bach was considering “all the scenarios.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Bach but this is tone deaf … Keep them safe. Call it off.”
Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, who won gold in Rio in 2016, posted: “The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day? You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in four months.”
And Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time gold medallist in hockey, came up with this: “I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead with such conviction is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”
One day I hope they put Wickenheiser on the back of the $20 bill.
Wilkinson, as much as anyone, understands the power of the athlete’s voice. While he said Canada’s earlier decision to boycott the Games was driven by the country’s entire Olympic community and virtually unanimous, he added: “(Athletes) were the ones who were saying they didn’t feel they should be doing this.
“This isn’t just about sports. This is about protecting our community, and sports has a duty to take a lead role in society. Athletes are getting people to stay at home.”
That’s the other part of this equation. While every responsible medical practitioner is urging the public to self-isolate during the crisis, athletes are setting a powerful example for the rest of the world. Without being overly maudlin, some of them watched their Olympic dream die Tuesday. Rower Will Crothers began training for the 2008 Games but didn’t make the Canadian team for Beijing. He came back to win a silver in London, England, four years later and was in Rio in 2016.
This year he was back at Elk Lake in Victoria. He wasn’t in a boat that qualified for the Tokyo Olympics but, at 32, he was still working, still training like a madman, all for one more chance to represent Canada.
Now? Who knows what comes next, but this is what he said when asked about his current circumstances.
“There are bigger things in play than my day-to-day training,” said Crothers.
Said Wilkinson: “I might be looking at this through rose-tinted glasses. But I do believe sports has the power to change a nation and motivate an entire world.”
You hope that’s the case. You really do.
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