The Current

'COVID is bigger than the Olympics': Athletes question certainty of Tokyo Games

Some Canadian athletes training for this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games say they’re worried about whether the events will — or even should — go ahead, as the pandemic continues to plague much of the world.

Summer Olympics still set for July, despite rising coronavirus case numbers in Japan

Madeleine Kelly, second left, leads her opponents to the finish line at a race on July 27, 2019. The Olympic-hopeful says she worries about public health and safety if the Summer Games in Tokyo go ahead as scheduled in July. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian press)

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Some Canadian athletes training for this year's Tokyo Olympic Games say they're worried about whether the events will — or even should — go ahead, as the pandemic continues to afflict much of the world.

"When you hear that Japan is nowhere near our vaccine numbers, that's certainly concerning," runner Madeleine Kelly told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"You also have to take into account that COVID is bigger than the Olympics."

The Summer Games are slated to begin on July 23, after they were postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The events are expected to bring together more than 15,000 athletes from around the globe, as well as thousands of judges, sponsors, media personnel and other officials. 

But with the number of COVID-19 cases in Japan on the rise in recent weeks, critics have questioned whether it's safe to do so. 

An online petition has called for the Tokyo Summer Games to be cancelled, but the plan is still for the international sporting event to begin in July. (Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

One online petition calling for the Games to be cancelled had garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures as of Friday. On the same day, Japanese officials extended a state of emergency for Tokyo and surrounding areas until the end of May. The orders were originally imposed in late April. 

This comes as Tokyo's Olympic organizers are calling for hundreds of Japanese nurses to be deployed to work at the Games — a request that has angered health-care professionals who say they're already near a breaking point trying to deal with the pandemic in their country.

Pfizer pledges vaccines for Olympians

Not all athletes have been focused on the uncertainty that has plagued the Games this year. 

In January, some athletes told The Current it was more important than ever for them to stay focused on training so they're prepared for whatever the future holds.

Canadian wrestler Jordie Steen also said at the time that while the postponement of the 2020 Games was disappointing, it was an unprecedented opportunity to prepare.

However, some people are still concerned about athletes' safety at the upcoming Olympics. 

To help quell those fears, Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Thursday that they would donate vaccines to Olympic athletes so they can be inoculated before the Games.

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Kelly, who is Canada's champion in the women's 800-metre track race and is working to qualify for the Olympics, said she would feel more comfortable travelling to and attending the international sporting event if she were vaccinated. 

However, her primary concerns with the Olympics going forward are people's health and safety.

"There are a bunch of people in less privileged countries who are still not able to get vaccinated," Kelly said. "And those Pfizer vaccines that are going to us are potentially a Pfizer vaccine that someone more in need isn't getting."

Skepticism as qualifiers postponed

Canadian swimmer Sydney Pickrem is skeptical the Olympics will even go ahead, as just training for the Games has been a hurdle in itself.

After swimming in Texas for five years, Pickrem decided during the pandemic to move to Toronto, where the Olympic swimming trials were set to be held in March. But the event has been postponed twice.

Instead of qualifying for the Games through a swim competition, Pickrem was nominated based on her performance in 2019 — a decision she said was hard to process.

"I've made my first Olympic Games [before] and I remember those moments when you touch the [pool] wall, you qualify, all those emotions," she told Galloway. "To just be on a Zoom call, eating my breakfast, trying to get ready for the next training session and get that call that you're going to the Olympics was so out of the ordinary."

Canadian swimmer Sydney Pickrem says she's still skeptical about whether the Games will happen, despite plans for them to go forward. (File/Getty Images)

Kelly is also waiting to see if her remaining races go ahead, which would give her more opportunities to qualify for the Games. 

But with everything the world is going through right now, she said she can't help but sometimes question the importance of what she's doing.

"I have been given a lot of government resources through this pandemic with the idea that I am an Olympic hopeful, and the Olympics are important, and Canada needs to send a team," she said. 

"And while I'm very grateful, you're constantly reminded of the fact that there are so many people who are having a really hard time right now."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann and Kate Cornick. 

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