Montreal

All for nothing? COVID-19 crushes dreams of Quebec Olympic athletes

The Canadian Olympic Committee took the lead worldwide, deciding not to send athletes to the Tokyo 2020 Games. Across Canada, athletes are lauding that decision, even while the news has left them reeling.

'I swear, I thought it was meant to be,' says 15-year water polo veteran who qualified for 1st games

Canada's Joëlle Békhazi was looking forward to playing water polo in the Olympics. She's not opposed to the COC decision, but her heart sank when she heard the news. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

Joëlle Békhazi competed for 15 years with Canada's national women's water polo team before she finally earned a spot at the Olympic Games.

"It was definitely a feeling that I've been waiting for a really, really, really long time," Békhazi said.

She joined the team in 2005, right after the Canadian women's team last went to the Athens Olympics. The team's attempts to qualify for Beijing, London and Rio all fell short, but Békhazi's persistence paid off. The team qualified for Tokyo, after a 19-5 victory over Brazil in the semi-final at the Pan Am Games in Peru last August.

So it was tough to find out the Canadian Olympic Committee's decision Sunday evening — that it would be pulling Canadian athletes from the Tokyo games this summer, even if the IOC goes ahead with the planned July 24 start date. 

"Your heart sinks, and you're like — really? I swear I thought it was meant to be," Békhazi said Monday.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the measures to contain the pandemic forcing athletes to jettison their training routines, the COC judged the risk too great for Canada to participate as planned.

It's a decision that Békhazi supports.

"I wouldn't have felt safe going at this point, with what is going on right now," she said. "The fact that we're trying to train and stay in shape during this pandemic is putting us at risk and others at risk. We're trying to be as safe as possible."

Proud of the COC — but yet

Most of Canada's Olympic hopefuls echo Békhazi's support for the COC's decision.

Antoine Valois-Fortier, a bronze medalist in judo at the 2012 Games, would have been heading to the Olympics for the third time in July. He said he's proud of the COC, even though it means his summer plans are completely washed out.

He hopes the IOC will postpone the games so he can wear the maple leaf and compete at a later date.

"I can't imagine not being at the Games," he told Radio-Canada in an interview Monday morning.

Fencer Joseph Polossifakis is supportive, too, even though the decision threw a big wrench into his plans.

He has been balancing a full-time job with his efforts to qualify for Tokyo.

Aliaksandr Buikevich of Belarus, left, and Joseph Polossifakis of Canada compete in a men's individual sabre event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

"It has been a difficult experience, doing both," he admits "If there is a new date, I'm going to have to go back and talk with my employers and see what is possible."

Polossifakis, who was aiming to represent Canada for a second time after competing in Rio in 2016, will turn 30 this summer, and he knows Tokyo could be his last shot.

"I'm in the end portion of my career," he said "There's always that small dose of 'what if the IOC doesn't buckle?'"

"But the truth is that it's the sensible decision, and I'm glad they made it."

No 'best-case scenario'

With Australia, Germany and Norway following Canada's lead and issuing similar statements to pressure the IOC to postpone the start of the games, Békhazi said she feels confident she will realize her Olympic dream eventually.

But she worries if the games are delayed too long, her water polo team might have to requalify to compete.

"I don't know if there is a best-case scenario. A year from now can change a lot. I don't even know if they'd change the teams that already qualified," she said.

Gymnast René Cournoyer, who secured his spot in Tokyo last October, he says the COC assured him he won't lose it. 

"I'm not worried about that, but the whole preparation is in jeopardy for sure," Cournoyer said "You don't know when you have to be ready for. You're trying to stay in shape and train but without having a real objective in mind — that's the hardest part."

Uncharted territory for Olympics organizers

By design, the Olympics qualifying events are meant to put the top athletes in the world at that moment in time in competition with one another.

"There is going to be a big debate on that," Polossifakis says "It's very hard to tell an athlete that qualified for Tokyo 2020 that that was all for nothing and that in one year they lose that spot."

Polossifakis had yet to secure his place at the Tokyo Games, after his qualifying tournaments were postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Last week the IOC said that only 57 per cent of the athletes who were expected to compete in Tokyo had already earned their berth.

About the Author

Douglas Gelevan, a national award-winning sports journalist, has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. He is currently the sports journalist for CBC News Montreal.

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