Tokyo Olympics delay throws athletes’ plans into disarray, says Canada’s chef de mission

Postponing the Tokyo Olympics by a full year has thrown a huge wrench in the lives of Canada’s elite athletes in ways that transcend their sports careers, according to a former Olympic champion.

“To suddenly say, ‘one more year,’ sucks all of the oxygen out of the room … because all of a sudden, the plans they had were garbage,” said Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic gold medallist in rowing and Canada’s chef de mission for the Tokyo Games.

For champion-calibre athletes, an event as major as the Olympics is more than just a date on a calendar. They’ve been training their bodies and minds to prepare, often for years in advance.

“If you’re racing every week for the year, you kind of know how it’s going to go. You know how everyone else is doing. You know how you’re doing. You have a good gauge, right? Right now, they are shooting darts in the dark,” she explained.

What’s more, when competitors’ careers are pegged to the games’ four-year cycle, the rest of their life plans tend to revolve around them.

WATCH | ‘We’re still going to have a Tokyo Olympics,’ says Canada’s chef de mission:

Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission, believes the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead with Canadian athletes, just not this summer. 9:07

“Some athletes will have a plan like: You know what? I’m going to go to the Olympics. And then my partner and I are going to have a kid,” said McBean.

Summer games athletes hoping to go back to school in the fall might also be compelled to put their post-sports lives on hold as well.

The International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The games are now scheduled to open on July 23, 2021, but Japanese officials and politicians along with the International Olympic Committee still have a litany of details to hammer out, ranging from athletes’ travel and accommodations, whether fans will be allowed to attend events, and just how much the postponement will cost — an expense which may be saddled onto Japanese citizens.

“It’s been very difficult and it has completely … derailed their expectations, and what they were prepared to do — with only three months’ notice,” said retired hurdler Perdita Felicien, a two-time Olympian and 10-time Canadian national champion in the 100-metre hurdles.

“We’re not talking a month, or two weeks. [We’re talking] a year. That’s huge in the life cycle of an Olympic athlete.”

Canada’s Perdita Felicien celebrates after winning the Women’s 100m Hurdles race at the 2003 Iaaf Athletics World Championships at the Stade De France in Paris. (Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/EPA/Shutterstock)

She added that since top stars’ sponsorship deals also rely on the games, it could also change their financial roadmap, potentially putting plans for starting a family or going back to school into question.

“[For] a lot of athletes, at least in track-and-field, this is the end of your option year, meaning this is the end of your Olympic contract. Do Olympic partners sign up for another year, or another four years? What do they do with that?” she said.

Time to rest, reflect

Despite these potential setbacks, McBean credits athletes’ ability to find the advantages in any situation — even one created by an unprecedented global pandemic.

An entire extra year can provide ample opportunity to hone their training, sometimes in ways that their regular regimen doesn’t have the time to allow. It also gives them time to recuperate from injuries and take a pause from their often-gruelling schedules.

“We always have access to physios, massage therapists, chiropractors and all these other things. But we don’t always have access to rest,” said McBean.

Perhaps most importantly, the forced downtime may give athletes a little breathing room to reflect on why they fell in love with their respective sport in the first place.

McBean pointed to an Instagram post of Canadian diver Jennifer Abel, splashing in the water of a pool with a beaming smile.

“The athletes have re-connected with their joy for the sport. It’s been a long time since they missed their sport, because it felt like work for a long time.”

Flattening the curve comes first

Depending on how the pandemic develops, Japan and the IOC agreed that if the games cannot be held, they will be cancelled. It would mark the first cancellation of the modern Olympics since the Second World War.

Despite the chaos such a decision could wreak upon athletes’ careers and lives, Felicien is in no rush for the torch to light up a stadium before it’s safe to do so.

“I’m not one of those people that feels we need to have sport right now. In fact, I think it’s too early for the NBA to come back,” she said.

“I feel like the greater calling right now is: Let’s get COVID under control. If sports needs to wait a year, or 18 months, then that’s just what it has to be.”

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Kate Cornick.

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