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Canadian athletes will not compete at Tokyo 2020 Games due to COVID-19 risks

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee say they will not send athletes to compete in Tokyo if the Games — set to begin July 24 — go ahead as scheduled.

Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees call for 1-year postponement

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee announced Sunday that they will not send athletes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to the risks of COVID-19. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) say they won't send athletes to compete at the Tokyo Games — set to begin July 24 — if they proceed as scheduled.

Backed by the Athletes' Commissions, National Sport Organizations and the Government of Canada, the COC and CPC say they "made the difficult decision to not send Canadian teams to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the summer of 2020."

The two committees are calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the Games for a year, citing the safety of athletes and the general public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health,"  the committees said in a statement Sunday night.

"With COVID-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training towards these Games". 

Following the announcement by the Canadian committees, Australia's chef de mission, Ian Chesterman, said it's clear the Games can't be held in July and urged they be postponed to 2021.

On Monday, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) backed the IOC's approach of taking time to consider postponing the Tokyo Games and condemned the body's critics.

"We view as unacceptable any attempts to bring pressure on the organizations in charge responsible of staging the Games and to force them to take rash decisions," the ROC said.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the COC's decision as an example of the social distancing required to prevent the spread of the disease.

"Team Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Team made the tough decision not to send athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer," Trudeau said in his daily briefing in Ottawa. "I know this is heartbreaking for so many people — athletes, coaches, staff and fans.

"But this was absolutely the right call and everyone should follow their lead."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a parliamentary session, said a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics would be unavoidable if the Games cannot be held in a complete way because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"If it is difficult to hold [the Games] in a complete way, a decision of postponement would be unavoidable," he said.

Abe said he hoped the IOC would make a decision early if it is postponed, because the process would involve a lot of work and should start as soon as possible.

The COC's Sunday statement also cited the scope of the public health threat.

"Containing the virus must be our paramount concern. We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport," it said.

Seyi Smith, chair of the COC Athletes' Commission, said the decision will ensure people are safe — and will also ensure Canada has the best competitive team.

"It's been a collective process to get here,"  Smith said.

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He said officials from the COC spent all Sunday calling the 14 members of the Athletes' Commission to get their insights on how to proceed.

"It's the uncertainty that is the worst thing, in sport and in life. People are sick, people are dying."

The move comes hours after the IOC said it would take a month to consider postponing the 2020 Olympics following an emergency meeting earlier on Sunday.

However, the IOC stated in a news release that "cancellation is not on the agenda" with respect to the upcoming Games.

'All in this together'

In a letter to athletes Sunday night, Canada's chef de mission, Marnie McBean, tried to provide comfort.

"I can imagine this note is in part both crushing and a relief. We've been waiting for some real decisions," McBean said.

"Please remember we are all in this together as Team Canada and as a nation. The key is for the Olympics to happen when it is safe and responsible for everyone," she said.

Five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC's Athletes Commission, and an early critic of the IOC's intention to press on with the Olympics as planned, said she was proud of the COC's announcement, writing in a social media post: "Leading the world. Very proud of this evening."

World champion swimmer Maggie MacNeil, who is hoping to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo, said in an Instagram post she understood the decision — though she was still disappointed.

"It was difficult to hear that Team Canada will not be sending a team to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics; however, I know that it is in the best interest of the athletes and society.

"The right choice was made, but it doesn't make it any easier."

Marc-André Fabien, president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said the health of the global committee is the priority.

"We are relieved that cancelling the Games is not a consideration, but we feel that a four-week timeline on a decision is not soon enough, and that a one-year postponement of the Games is truly the only option," Fabien said in a statement.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the decision is the right thing to do under the circumstances.

"To our athletes: representing your country at this time also means protecting your health and the health of those surrounding you," Guilbeault said in a statement.

Ball in IOC's court

In a separate letter sent to Olympic athletes, IOC president Thomas Bach offered assurances that "we are working very hard, and we are confident that we will have finalized these discussions within the next four weeks."

The COC and CPC say they are thankful for the IOC's assurance that it will not cancel the Tokyo 2020 Games and that they understand the importance of accelerating its decision-making regarding a possible postponement.

"We also applaud the IOC for acknowledging that safeguarding the health and wellness of nations and containing the virus must be our paramount concern. We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport," the statement said.

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