With Olympic dreams on hold, combat sport athletes urge government to let them get back in the fight

Federations representing combat sports will meet with public health officials Tuesday.

Federations representing combat sports will meet with public health officials Tuesday

Hard Knox B gym in Saint-Henri hasn't seen much any fighting since the start of the pandemic, but athletes and amateurs alike say they're hoping that changes soon. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Quebec's combat sports aficionados are hoping the province will let them get back in the fight.

Most other sports in the province have been allowed to resume, but those who practice disciplines like judo, boxing and wrestling are still banned from any fighting or sparring that involves contact between athletes.

Athletes can still train individually, but those with dreams of going pro say that's just not enough, and combat sports federations are urging the Quebec government to let them back in the ring. 

Celeste Baillargeon, a boxer, was on her way to the Canadian national championships when COVID-19 brought the sports world to a standstill.

"The second I'm the best in the country, I want to go pro, but now I have to delay everything by a year, so I'm probably going to be 30 when I go pro," she said.

She said while being able to train is better than nothing, it feels futile without a fight to look forward to.

"We have to get back to fighting," she said. "Every sport — like there's the NHL playoffs right now — every sport is back in, why are we left out?" 

Celeste Baillargeon, a boxer, says the pandemic has delayed her plans of going pro by a year.

Hiroshi Nakamura, who has coached the Canadian judo team at five Olympic Games, said two fighters at his Shidokan Dojo had to put their dreams on hold after the Tokyo games were postponed.

"They worked so hard, for so many years, and [were] selected to go to the Olympic games, and they postponed it," he said.

Nakamura said there's no guarantee those athletes will be able to compete next year, even if the games go on as planned.

Sparring with imaginary opponents

Amateur athletes, especially children, will also be deprived of physical exercise if combat sports are not allowed to continue, Nakamura said.

He said for now, the kids at his dojo are practicing their moves in a park, on an imaginary opponent, an experience that simply does not measure up to fighting, or even sparring.

"These are kids that we are preventing from living their passion, to practice their sport," said Ariane Fortin, president of the Quebec Boxing Federation.

Fortin said there could be a way to practice these sports safely, like using a 'bubbling' system, where groups of four athletes will only fight and train with one another all season long.

These amateur athletes from the Shidokan Dojo would normally be practising judo moves on each other, but they have had to settle for sparring with an imaginary opponent.

On Tuesday, Fortin and other representatives from combat sport federations will meet with public health officials to propose the concept.

She said she hopes to walk out of the meeting with a concrete plan that will allow clubs to start fighting again, because they depend on registrations to survive, and she doesn't want to see them disappear.

In the meantime, Fortin said people who practice combat sports shouldn't throw in the towel just yet.

"I would tell them to hang in there," she said.