Sports

Adversity of postponements caused by COVID-19 a familiar feeling for athletes

While there are ongoing conversations about how to save seasons, shorten seasons and award championships, a reality check is needed — perspective and tone and keeping in mind the safety and health of people is all that really matters.

'We're getting through it as a nation,' says sports medicine doctor Jane Thornton

Despite the sports world witnessing mass postponement or cancellation of events, sports medicine doctor Jane Thornton assures athletes are well-equipped to handle the unknown. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The bright lights of arenas have been turned off for now.

Stadiums and arenas around the world, normally filled with thousands of cheering, chanting and celebrating fans, have fallen silent.

City parks and basketball courts are no longer overflowing with the chorus of children laughing and that sweet sound of a basketball swishing through a hoop.

This is a strange, unsettling and unknown time for everyone, both in sport and in life — from the pros who earn millions, high performance athletes who were so singularly focused on their Olympic and Paralympic pursuit, to young kids who dream of playing in the big leagues or just want to have some fun.

No person is unaffected by the global pandemic. The number of infected continues to climb. Thousands of people are dying worldwide. And how anyone is feeling or handling this all can ebb and flow and change at any given moment.

Sport, for so long and so many, has always been a refuge from the "real world," an escape for two or three hours on a nightly basis or weekend afternoons from the sometimes monotonous and predictable aspects of life.

While there are ongoing conversations about how to save seasons, shorten seasons and award championships, a reality check is needed — perspective and tone and keeping in mind the safety and health of people is all that really matters.

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Boxer Mandy Bujold of Cobourg, Ont., has a young daughter, but now the push to 2021 will mean waiting for a second child. 5:22

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounded as though Canada was in the midst of a war, that it's up to every Canadian to take up the call to action.

"This is service many of us have never been called to do," Trudeau said. "Staying home is your way to serve. So be smart about the choices you make. That's how you will serve your country."

These unnerving times resonate in a visceral way with sports psychiatrist Carla Edwards and sports medicine doctor Jane Thornton. The two felt compelled to bring together their experience and perspective to pen a recent post that now lives on the British Journal of Sports Medicine website.

Throughout the post, Edwards and Thornton outline the many fears and concerns athletes have right now and how their mental health could be affected. They finish by sharing a number of resources on how to cope and where to go for help.

"Normalizing it," Thornton said.

"When uncertainty hits all the thoughts are whirling around. Athletes come in to see me and they sometimes think they're the only athlete feeling that way. I think when you write an article, people say there must be others out there. It's okay to experience this and normal to feel."

Thornton knows, at least a little, what athletes are feeling right now. She's a former world champion rower and competed for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There were questions and concerns leading into those Games about whether they would take place due to air pollution.

While it's obvious this is a very different situation, Thornton says athletes have spent their entire lives and careers waging battle on rinks and fields and courts and have met uncertainty, adversity and discomfort repeatedly — only to rise up and stare it down.

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The four-time Olympic champion broke her silence on the year-long postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, appearing on NBC's 'Today' show on Wednesday morning. 0:33

Now, Thornton is reminding athletes and non-athletes of their resilience and ability to overcome. Her advice is succinct.

"You have done this before," she said.

"In any sport you deal with weather delays. Illness. Injury. Life stressors. This is another thing out of our control but there are ways we can bring it back to focusing on the things we can control."

Thornton practises two times a week at the sports medicine clinic at Western University. She does clinical research the other three days of the week. She's trained as a family doctor and realizes at any moment she may be called into action.

"As a family doctor I'm on a list here to be redeployed to either help at the front lines if the burden becomes too high or doing COVID-19 assessments," Thornton said.

For as big and as scary and daunting as this is, Thornton says athletes have faced the unknown so many times and that now is the time to lean on their toolkit of skills to get through this.

"We've done this before. And you've faced so many uncertainties. That has always been part of our training. We train ourselves to be good at tackling all of this. This is another part of it," Thornton said. "We will get through this and we're getting through it as a nation."

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Thornton says one of the most important aspects of dealing with this all, not only for athletes but for everyone, is that it's being experienced collectively — in communities across the country people are isolated in their homes but finding ways to connect in ways they never have.

It is through community and collectivism Thornton says people will be able to push through the fear and unknowing.

"You are no one without your team," Thornton said. "In sport and life. It's a worldwide phenomenon. We're all going through this together."

When the lights are turned back on in arenas and the stadiums fill again with fans and the children reclaim playgrounds, there will be a different appreciation, at least for a little bit, for what sport and activity means and what it brings to the lives of people.

In the meantime, Thornton is reminding everyone of their resilience and ability to overcome.

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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