Canadian athletes praise leadership after decision to skip Tokyo 2020 amid risks

Canadian athletes are speaking with a unified voice when it comes to the decision by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee not to send athletes to Tokyo 2020 unless the Games are postponed.

'Now, more than ever, is a time to think bigger than yourself'

Canadian athletes have exhibited solidarity in the wake of the COC, CPC decision not to send competitors to Tokyo 2020 due to COVID-19 risks. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

While there is some sadness and a hefty measure of trepidation, Canadian athletes are speaking with a unified voice when it comes to the decision by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee not to send athletes to Tokyo 2020 unless the Games are postponed for a year.

In a bold and decisive move announced Sunday evening, Canada became the first country to withdraw its athletes from Tokyo 2020 following concerns surrounding the global pandemic and spread of COVID-19.

"I am proud that Canada has taken a leading role in prioritizing the health of its athletes, the country, and the world," said Rosie MacLennan, Vice-Chair of the COC's Athlete's Commission and a two-time gold medallist in the sport of trampoline.

"I am incredibly grateful to the IOC (International Olympic Committee), that they have not put cancellation on the table. I believe in the power of sport and I believe that the Tokyo Games should be a symbol of hope and that they should be held at a time of celebration when the world has come together and pulled through this. But that is not this summer."

Erica Gavel, a wheelchair basketball player and a member of the CPC's Athlete's Council is in total agreement while pointing to the sacrifice that many athletes may have to make after years of preparation to compete in Tokyo.

"It's extremely disappointing as I have dedicated a great portion of my life to Tokyo 2020," Gavel said via email.

"With that being said, I appreciate and am grateful that Team Canada made an athlete-centred decision based on the current situation with COVID-19. I think Canada showed tremendous leadership and demonstrated that the humanity of the athletes, administrators, coaches, and staff is greater than sports. I am proud of the COC and CPC for doing the right thing."

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CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin on the Canadian Olympic Committee's decision to lobby for a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu is the Canadian track and field record holder in the women's 800m and a former world championship silver medallist. She finished an agonizing fourth, just missing a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics and gave birth to her first child in between Games.

At 31 years of age, Tokyo 2020 may be her last opportunity to compete at the Olympics.

"The COC's announcement is crushing to say the least. We work so hard for so many years to be at this level," Bishop-Nriagu said.

"But this is far bigger than our dreams right now. Now, more than ever, is a time to think bigger than yourself. Protect yourself, your families, and your communities. I'll be ready and will wait for the 2020 Olympics whenever they may be. I still have a medal to fight for. Sport will bring the world together again. When the time is right, the Olympics will be a celebration."

WATCH | COC says athletes won't attend if Olympics held in 2020:

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CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin discusses the Canadian Olympic Committee's decision to refuse to send athletes to the Olympics if they do go ahead as planned, instead calling for a one year postponement.

Swimmer Brent Hayden won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. Now 36-years-old, he's attempting a comeback after seven years away from competition. The COC's decision does not rest lightly with him.

"My faith is that the Olympics will happen, but at a later date," Hayden said by phone from Vancouver.

"I'm really proud that Canada took the lead on this, set the example for the rest of the world, and did the right thing. I'm going to go for Tokyo 2021. I'm committed to competing at the Olympics again. If it has to be at Paris 2024 as a 40-year-old then so be it. It's just that my comeback story will be written differently than expected."

WATCH | Athletes' reaction to COC decision:

Canadian athletes respond to COC's Olympic decision

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With the COC announcing they would not send Canadians to the Olympics if they remain as scheduled, athletes took to social media to voice their opinions. 

The Canadian Olympic team at Tokyo 2020's Opening Ceremony on July 24 was projected to be in the neighbourhood of 425 athletes. Another 150 were expected to comprise Team Canada at the Paralympics which, for now, are still set to begin in late August.

The immediate future of all those athletes is now on hold.

"Now is not the time to be focused on high performance sport," Rosie MacLennan stressed.

"We are part of a broader Team Canada of 37 million and like all Canadians we are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on our families, our country, and the world. We want to be able to do our part to help combat the spread of the virus. We want to be part of an Olympic Games that helps celebrate humanity and the world coming together."

All of the Canadian athletes now await the decision of the IOC, IPC (International Paralympic Committee), Tokyo 2020 organizers, and the WHO (World Health Organization), on the future of the Games.

For its part, the IOC has promised to make that decision in less than four weeks time.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.