A man holding a Team Canada flag stares out at the crowds walking through Shibuya Crossing.Photo: Vincent Éthier/Team Canada
Photo: Vincent Éthier/Team Canada

Team Canada’s new normal one year after Tokyo 2020 postponement

On this day last year, the International Olympic Committee made the very difficult decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, we are confident that the Olympic Games can be staged safely this summer.

For my first time writing directly to Team Canada fans through Olympic.ca, I thought I would reflect a bit on the events of the last 12 months and explain what has changed.

David Shoemaker's Headshot

David Shoemaker is the Chief Executive Officer and Secretary General of the Canadian Olympic Committee. (Photo: Claude-André Fortin)

March 13, 2020

When I think back to March last year, I remember the uncertainty that permeated everything. A new virus was sweeping the globe. The stories from emergency rooms in areas hit early were terrifying. We had to do our best to protect our frontline workers and our most vulnerable populations.

In early March, the COC’s Senior Leadership Team and I decided to send our employees home and move our Montreal and Toronto offices to a remote working environment.

We learned to physically distance ourselves from anyone not in our bubbles and wondered if we would be separated for weeks, months, or potentially years.

Meanwhile, tension was building in the Canadian sport system. Athletes still needed to prepare for Tokyo 2020, which was just four months away, and yet the public health advice to Canadians was to stay home, to isolate, to do our part to “flatten the curve.”  It confounded us. We began discussions with many of our stakeholders including the Canadian Paralympic Committee, our national funding partners, and our sport leaders.

Games Postponement

On March 20, we convened our Athletes’ Commission and our Board. And it became clear that Team Canada couldn’t go to the Games in the summer of 2020. How could we continue to train while gyms, pools, training centres, even outdoor tracks, were being shut down? I remember iconic Olympians like Rosie MacLennan and Diana Matheson making the case that the safety of their families and their communities couldn’t take a back seat to their Olympic dreams. On March 22, the COC announced it would not be able to send a team to the Games if they were hosted in the summer of 2020.

On March 24, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 decided to postpone the Games to 2021. With a clear path, the Canadian sport system shifted its focus to the things we could do to keep Team Canada safe while preparing to be our best in a little over a year. We worked incredibly hard together to find solutions for the new-to-us problems created by COVID-19. When I reflect on it, I’m so proud of what we as a system did together.

RELATED: Team Canada athletes react to Tokyo 2020 postponement

Return To Sport

We formed a Return to Sport Task Force chaired by Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger, with medical experts across the sport system to help us make informed decisions based on the best medical advice we could get. The team at the COC hosted all-sport Zoom meetings with our partners at the Canadian Paralympic Committee and even brought in astronaut Chris Hadfield to talk to the athletes about managing uncertainty. We worked with the IOC, IPC, and other National Olympic Committees to learn from the international sport community and to share what was working for us.

We worked with our 27 marketing partners to ensure they understood the challenges and the new Olympic plan. Despite the clear impact to their businesses, I’m pleased to say that they are all still with us, supporting Team Canada’s athletes on their journeys to Tokyo and beyond.

With our sport partners, including Sport Canada, we worked with the National Sport Organizations, many of whom have suffered brutal challenges during the pandemic, to try to help them navigate CERB, advocate for funding, and manage remote work environments.

To help, the COC, along with the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Own the Podium, invested $5M in funding a safe return to high-performance sport, including the purchase of several molecular and rapid testing machines so that athletes could safely resume training in bubbles. This barely even begins to tell the story. Every sport, every training centre has its nuances, but together the system found a way.

RELATED: FAQ: Impact of Tokyo 2020 postponement on Olympic qualification, sports schedules

Our New Normal

Meanwhile, around us things changed. Bylaws came into effect and other measures were put in place to help stop the spread and plank the curve. Slowly, we gained a deeper understanding of the virus, learning to wear masks almost everywhere. Initial reports of vaccines taking a minimum of years started to become more optimistic. Then professional sport resumed in bubbles. And here is where I think things really began to change for sport.

The IOC learned from sports organizations like the NBA, WNBA, NWSL, NHL, and European soccer leagues that successfully resumed play. They had developed countermeasures for virtually every possible scenario based on travel needs, country entry, physical distancing, PPE, cleaning, virus testing and tracking, and vaccines. The IOC’s medical teams studied these countermeasures and are working with Tokyo 2020 to implement many of them at the Games.

The initial draft of countermeasures was recently published in Tokyo 2020 Playbooks, which we expect to be updated in April. They align with the node model our sport team and our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mike Wilkinson, have designed to keep athletes as safe as possible while at the Games.

We also made the decision to scale back overall operations on the ground in Tokyo. Almost all staff on our drastically reduced Mission Team going to Tokyo are dedicated to athlete safety and performance and will be assigned specific nodes to restrict movement. Unfortunately, this means that there will be no Canada Olympic House at Tokyo 2020.

Learn more about Tokyo 2020

There is no question that the absence of overseas spectators at the Games (as announced over the weekend) will result in a different experience for everyone in Tokyo, but Team Canada supports the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee’s commitment to delivering a safe and secure Olympic Games.

We know that Team Canada’s family, friends and fans, the people who play such a vital role in bringing the Olympic spirit to life at the Olympic Games, will be supporting the team from far and wide.

With our broadcast partner at CBC/Radio-Canada and our in-house Digital Team, we will do our best to bring the magic and energy of the Games to our fans here in Canada.

RELATED: Tokyo 2020 Team Canada Qualification Tracker

So far, Canada has earned 99 Tokyo 2020 event entries, which represents 239 athletes. The COC and its sport partners are doing everything to help as many athletes as possible qualify for the Games. You will have already seen two Team Announcements just last week, sailing and sport climbing. Keep your eyes open for more in the weeks and months to come as we proudly introduce the athletes who will be wearing the maple leaf in Tokyo.

We’ve never been through anything like this before. I draw my courage, resolve, and confidence from our Chef de Mission, Marnie McBean. She knows a thing or two about winning Olympic gold and overcoming adversity. As Team Canada’s leader in Tokyo, Marnie has been telling Canadian athletes to focus on what they can control and to write their own story. There is no straight path to the Olympic Games; setbacks are part of the journey. I too have decided to embrace Marnie’s outlook.

RELATED : McBean: Chaos and change can provide the greatest opportunities

The Power of Sport

So, after all that, what’s changed? Everything has. Our lives in sport and at home have been upended, but our knowledge of the virus, our understanding of how training and competition can be safely delivered for athletes and their communities, are in a completely different place than they were a year ago.

I think an equally important question is what hasn’t changed? Sport, for example, is still an incredible vehicle for good, for spreading Canadian values, for building bridges, for celebrating humanity, and challenging the status quo.

RELATED: 10 Team Canada Athletes Who Made Us Proud and Gave Us Hope in 2020

That is why I think this summer’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will be more impactful than ever. They will provide Canadians with pride, joy, and inspiration at a time when we need it most. The resilience of athletes shine a light on our collective ability to overcome challenges.

These Games will be a global celebration, done responsibly, after more than a year of closed borders. Even without fans, tourism, or Canada Olympic House, Tokyo 2020 will still have the essence of the Games: the world coming together to celebrate peace and unity through sport.

David Shoemaker is the Chief Executive Officer and Secretary General of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

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