Why the Tokyo Olympics look tenuous once again

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The closer the Tokyo Olympics get, the further away they seem

With less than three months until the Tokyo Olympics, organizers insist the Games will go ahead. But a pair of Canadian dropouts from international events over the weekend, plus another scare in the Calgary curling bubble, show just how tenuous the Olympics really are in the midst of a global health crisis.

Bianca Andreescu is out of the Madrid Open after testing positive for COVID-19. It was supposed to be the Canadian tennis star’s first tournament since retiring from the Miami Open final in early April. Andreescu says she tested negative twice before getting on the plane to Spain, but a positive test upon arrival ultimately left her on the sidelines. She says she’s “feeling good” despite contracting the virus.

The layoff shouldn’t affect Andreescu’s Olympic standing — most qualifiers come from the top 56 of the WTA rankings as of June 7, and Andreescu is sixth. But the ordeal raises the question of how the situation would be handled in Tokyo. Longer seasons in North American sports have allowed for postponements, but the Olympics are a different beast, with way more athletes and way more “championships” packed into a 17-day window. At the Rio Games, Penny Oleksiak won four medals in a six-day span, meaning a positive test might have wiped out Canada’s most feel-good story in Brazil. A top infectious diseases physician recently told CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux that cases of COVID-19 among athletes in Tokyo are likely.

Canada was one of many countries to drop out of a major track meet. Along with the U.S., Jamaica, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, Canada won’t be sending a team to the World Relays in Poland next month because of COVID-19 concerns. Canada previously announced a roster of 24 athletes, but pulled out due to risks of the mostly non-vaccinated team contracting the virus and having Olympic training plans consequently left in tatters. The withdrawal is one less opportunity for Canadian athletes to gain world ranking points or meet Olympic standard times to qualify for Tokyo. National Olympic trials are scheduled to be held at the end of June in Montreal.

So far, only one country has backed out of the Olympics over health concerns: North Korea. Take that for what it’s worth, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see more countries follow suit at this point. India, for example, is facing its fifth consecutive daily record of COVID-19 cases and its hospitals are already overwhelmed. From a public health perspective, it may not make sense to send athletes to an international event. In Canada, hockey-player-turned-medical-student Hayley Wickenheiser raised concerns, too. The more countries that skip Tokyo, the more the Games may be remembered with an asterisk like the widely boycotted 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

A pair of positive tests are threatening the women’s world curling championship. The tournament is set to begin in Calgary on Friday, but intake testing revealed two cases of COVID-19 on the same unidentified team. It’s not the first scare the bubble has endured — the men’s worlds saw postponements after what were later deemed false positives. There is no word yet on whether the bonspiel will begin as planned. At the Olympic level, can you let a team that has multiple individuals testing positive compete against a fully healthy opponent?

A second edition of the IOC’s ‘Playbooks’ begins rolling out on Wednesday. These are the guidelines for how more than 15,000 athletes are expected to compete at the Olympics and Paralympics amidst a pandemic. The latest is expected to include daily testing, in addition to two tests in four days before athletes leave their home country and one more upon arrival in Japan. An Olympic bubble will limit participants to the Athletes’ Village, training centres and venues.

It remains unclear how positive tests and cases like Andreescu’s would be handled, and it also remains to be seen if Japanese citizens will come around to hosting, as the latest polling reveals that at least 70 per cent are opposed. Meanwhile, just one per cent of the Japanese population is vaccinated and the torch relay has been rerouted to avoid hot spots on multiple occasions as the country lives under its third state of emergency.

The Playbook is intended to quell concerns about COVID-19 and discourage countries, as well as individual athletes, from making the same decision as North Korea. The IOC has been steadfast in its insistence that the Games will go on as the light at the end of the tunnel. But the closer we get to July 23, the dimmer that light seems to become. Read more about the upcoming Playbook here.

IOC President Thomas Bach said last week his plans to meet the torch relay in Hiroshima on May 17-18 are not yet confirmed. (Nicolas Datiche-Pool/Getty Images)

Quickly…

Canada’s Brooke Henderson won her 10th LPGA title. She extended her Canadian record for professional golf championships after charging back to win the L.A. Open from down four strokes to begin the final round. Now fifth in the LPGA rankings, Henderson is a safe bet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — and a legitimate threat to land on the podium, too. But first, the Smiths Falls, Ont., native wants to bring the sport back to her home province, where it’s currently barred as part of recently installed lockdown measures. Henderson made her case following the victory, citing the natural social distance of golf. Read more about the Canadian’s big win and watch her plea to Ontario here.

A boxer added a lawyer to her corner to boost Olympic hopes. Eleven-time Canadian champion Mandy Bujold is currently slated to miss the Tokyo Olympics after her final qualifying event was cancelled, forcing the IOC to produce a revised ranking system. That left Bujold on the outside looking in after missing most of the two pre-pandemic years while pregnant with daughter Kate. Now, Bujold has hired a lawyer to represent her in challenging the IOC’s amended qualification system. A decision is expected by the end of the week. Read more about Bujold’s latest fight here.

Scotland’s Bruce Mouat is curling’s newest force. The 26-year-old has now won both Grand Slam of Curling events in Calgary after defeating Canada’s Brad Gushue in Sunday’s Players’ Championship final. Mouat also fell to reigning Olympic gold medallist Niklas Edin in the championship match at worlds. Before 2021, Mouat had only won one previous Grand Slam event, and he’s never qualified for an Olympics. Ten months away from Beijing, Mouat is yet another threat to Canada’s quickly fading granite dominance. On the women’s side, Kerri Einarson downed Rachel Homan in a rematch of the Scotties final, also won by Einarson. Read more about both Grand Slam victories here.

The Winnipeg Jets lost one of their top scorers for the rest of the regular season. Head coach Paul Maurice says he’s “confident” Nik Ehlers will return for the playoffs after taking this hit from Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin on Saturday. Ehlers has 21 goals and 46 points for the second-place Jets, whose already slim chances of passing Toronto for first in the North just got slimmer. Read more about the injury here.

And finally…

Madison Bumgarner threw a complete game without allowing a hit. But don’t call it a no-hitter. Major League Baseball won’t acknowledge the feat since it came in a seven-inning game on the back half of a doubleheader. Instead, it’ll go down in the record books as a complete-game shutout victory with no hits or walks allowed by Bumgarner. The only baserunner reached on an error. It all made for an awkward ending to the game, as players on the field weren’t sure whether the fake no-hitter was worth celebrating. Watch the final out and read more here.

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