The Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) was not ready for the upheaval that the pandemic foisted on its preparations for the Tokyo Games.
In March 2020, Canada announced that it would not send its athletes to Tokyo in 2020. A week later, the International Olympic Committee announced that the Olympics and Paralympics would be delayed until this July.
Competition resumed recently after a hiatus of almost a year, though with the difficulties of travel and testing that sports across the world have had to deal with.
Tournaments and classification events had been cancelled around the world, which left the CPC and National Sport Organizations (NSOs) scrambling to qualify athletes while trying to ensure their safety. Athletics Canada pulled out of a Grand Prix event in Dubai in February because of a lack of confidence in the mitigation strategy for COVID, but then subsequent events in China and Brazil were cancelled. Athletics Canada is now waiting to hear if tournaments in Paris or Switzerland in May will take place. Swimming Canada has qualified only seven of its 19 spots for Tokyo.
“We really had to [find solutions] from a sport-specific approach,” said Catherine Gosselin-Després, the CPC’s executive director of sport. “[We’re] trying to have multiple plans, contingencies, and also right now, our runway of time is getting shorter and shorter.
“There are still some events getting cancelled. Talking with the international federations, we’re explaining to them our situation in Canada, and the travel restriction and quarantine requirements… It’s just that creativity, that dialogue, and trying to think outside of the box a little bit.”
The CPC has found a number of solutions, which it has applied piecemeal across different sports, as each NSO faces unique problems. As qualifying events dried up, Gosselin-Després worked with international federations to allow Canada to hold events at home; some flexible international federations have certified the records and times set domestically to count internationally. The CPC has also collaborated with provincial governments to support international host organizations.
Another issue was classification. Every Paralympic athlete needs to be classified to determine which athletes compete together for fairness of competition, and it needs to be updated every few years. With classification events vanishing from the calendar, those that did take place were in high demand and difficult to enter.
But in a saving grace, some NSOs such as Athletics Canada have been granted the ability to classify domestically. For Athletics Canada, that will happen in Toronto in April, helping Canada qualify those athletes who haven’t had a chance to classify yet.
Meanwhile, Canada’s para athletes stayed busy. With snow on the ground and facilities closed across the country, training for summer sports was difficult. Many athletes spent their time promoting the para athletics movement. Athletes’ podcasts and instagram accounts proliferated, such as Nate Riech’s Strides with Gray Wolf. Riech will be competing in his first Paralympic Games at Tokyo, and he’s a strong medal hopeful in the 1,500 metres after winning gold in the world Para Athletics Championships in 2019.
Stephanie Dixon, Canada’s chef de mission for the Tokyo Paralympics, feels the country’s para athletes adapted well to the havoc that COVID-19 wreaked on their competition schedules. An ability to rise above challenge is inherent to being a para athlete.
“The constant common ground between all Paralympians is challenge, adversity, being underestimated by society, and that’s why a lot of Paralympians have been training their whole lives to deal with a situation like this,” said Dixon, who won 19 medals, including seven gold, as a swimmer in her three Paralympics.
Between the organizational wizardry of the CPC and the relentless positivity of Canada’s para athletes, there’s now a light at the end of the tunnel in preparing for Tokyo. That doesn’t mean that new and unexpected obstacles won’t arise before Tokyo.
“There’s a constant cycle of challenge and breakthrough,” Dixon said. “It’s been a massive win that the Games are even able to happen … I think right now, heading into these Games, we are in a state of a bit of a breakthrough, but there are more challenges ahead.”
But for now, the CPC feels it is on track. Flights aren’t yet booked for athletes, but the CPC is already preparing the village layout with extra safety measures, even beyond the Olympics’ own guidelines. Gosselin-Després is encouraging athletes to participate in Canada’s vaccination program and is hopeful athletes who wish to be vaccinated can have at least their first dose before the Games begin in August.
Approximately 70 per cent of the athletes the CPC would send to a normal Games have already qualified, and Dixon and Gosselin-Després are confident they’ll qualify the remainder in time.
Reaching this level of preparedness has required incredible perseverance on the part of Canada’s athletes and planners. That also means they’ve learned lessons that will make future Games easier to plan; the pandemic has had silver linings.
The CPC and Canada’s NSOs have cleaner and more active lines of communications. They’ve prioritized flexibility and improvised problem solving.
“We have a different way of thinking than we did before,” Gosselin-Després said. “I would have been horrified with the situation we’re in. Now I find it exciting.”
Beyond logistical improvements, the pandemic has forced the CPC to reconsider the purpose of the Games. The “representation of the human spirit” is the value of sport, said Dixon, not the triviality of putting a ball in a hoop or swimming laps in a pool. And the pandemic has hammered home that lesson.
“We cannot pretend that this whole pandemic is not happening or that athletes have not had major interruptions to their mental, physical, emotional training and preparations for these Games,” Dixon said. “We’re focusing more on the health and safety of athletes. I do hope that adjusting our expectations of athletes also — moving forward — continues.
“Because medals are great, but it is human growth and potential that really matters.”