Are athletes at post-secondary schools elite? Ontario's new COVID-19 rules say no, but now there's pushback

Student athletes, coaches and other college and university sports interests feel Ontario dropped the ball when it left them out of the "elite" designation that allows Olympic, Paralympic and other athletes to continue competing under the latest pandemic restrictions.
McMaster Marauders celebrate beating Western Mustangs in the U Sports Yates Cup university football championship in London, Ont., in November 2019. With the latest Ontario pandemic restrictions that kicked in Wednesday, college and university teams have had to stop competing until at least Jan. 17. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Under new Ontario restrictions in efforts to fight the pandemic, Olympic and Paralympic athletes are among "elite" sports interests given the go-ahead to continue competition.

Competitors at post-secondary schools, however, weren't given that elite designation — and many in university and college sports circles say the province dropped the ball on that one.

Now, calls are growing for Ontario to also consider universities and college sports elite under the new COVID-19 restrictions that kicked in Wednesday.

On Thursday, the athletics department at McMaster University in Hamilton encouraged student athletes to "get loud" — including by using the hashtag #OUAisElite on social media, referring to Ontario University Athletics (OUA). 

While most indoor sport and recreational facilities closed Wednesday, athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as select professional and elite amateur sport leagues, are allowed to stay in the game.

"The ministry's decision not to designate the OUA as elite amateur sport on Monday is disappointing," the department said in an email to athletes.

"Unfortunately, the new restrictions have halted our return to train and, until further notice, we must stop all on-campus activity including anything related to training, competing, and recruiting."

Elite recognition is well deserved for the talented individuals that make up the conference, as is witnessed year in and year out.- Ontario University Athletics

A spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford said Monday's decision was based on advice from the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore.

"Our government is doing everything possible to blunt the transmission of COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading omicron variant," press secretary Alexandra Adamo wrote in an email to CBC News.

"These time-limited measures will help in our fight against this virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. This decision, based on advice from the chief medical officer of health, was made to keep people safe."

In a statement on Tuesday, the OUA said elite recognition "is well deserved for the talented individuals that make up the conference, as is witnessed year in and year out.

"The notion that the hard-working student athletes, who have long strived toward the goal of competing at the post-secondary level and proudly representing one of the OUA's 20 member institutions in the sport they love, aren't considered elite by the government of Ontario is a disservice to the dedication, commitment and talent that they continue to show on a day-to-day basis." 

The OUA said the athletes, in addition to proving their efforts academically and in the community, have exhibited their athletic ability at the provincial level against some of their sport's best.

Additionally, the OUA said, several athletes have continued to make their marks in their sports on even "grander scales."

"From representing their country at the Olympic Games, much like 37 current and former OUA athletes did this past summer at Tokyo 2020; to finding success across national and international competitions; and signing professional contracts in high-performance leagues around the world, the elite nature of OUA student athletes has been demonstrated time and time again," the statement said.

OCAA 'advocating' for elite designation, too

Similarly, the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) says it's "communicating directly with the Ministry of Heritage, Sports, Tourism and Culture Industries advocating for the conference to operate as part of the elite amateur sport league exemption list."

At Mohawk College in Hamilton, the Mohawk Mountaineers athletics and recreation department also disagrees with Ontario's idea of what constitutes an elite athlete.

"We are elite. Our student athletes not only exhibit this on the playing field, but behind the scene through their classroom and community efforts.

"The high performance displayed by the student athletes day in and day out deserves appreciation and respect at a provincial and national level."

Will Manigat, head coach of the men's basketball team at Brock University in St. Catharines, also questioned the Ontario government's decision.

"As a governing body, did we simply not do our work and due diligence to take the necessary steps to be on the 'elite amateur' status list?" he tweeted.

"If so, I apologize to every athlete across all sports! We failed you!!"

There's also an online petition, launched by the Canadian Student Athlete Association, urging the government to designate OUA and OCAA as "elite athletic organizations." By Thursday evening, nearly 4,000 names had been added as signatories. 


Desmond Brown

Web Writer / Editor

Desmond Brown is a GTA-based freelance writer and editor. You can reach him at: desmond.brown@cbc.ca.