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.
‘Canadian athletes far and wide came together’
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.”
Olympics ‘are not going to be a level playing field’
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.
All 27 of COC’s corporate sponsors are sticking with the Canadian team
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.”