Canadian Olympic athletes on tenterhooks trying to avoid COVID ahead of Beijing
Skaters Radford, James will compete in nationals after recovering from positive tests over holidays
Faster. Higher. Stronger. Together — and just don't test positive.
That's the rallying cry for thousands of athletes as they prepare for the Olympics.
With less than a month to go until the Feb. 4 opening ceremony at the Beijing Games, and with the clock ticking on the Canadian Olympic Committee's Jan. 23 deadline to announce the athletes who will be competing, the only thing on the minds of most athletes is staying clear of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.
"There's this invisible minefield laid out in front of you over the next few weeks, as you try to dodge COVID and not become positive in the next couple of weeks, while trying to train for one of the biggest moments of your life," said Canadian figure skater Eric Radford.
"Preparing for any competition, and especially the Olympics is difficult enough. It's one of the most stressful times of an athlete's life."
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Radford, along with pairs partner Vanessa James, revealed they are recovering from COVID-19. James tested positive on Dec. 23, while Radford got his positive test on Dec. 26. On Thursday, Radford said he and James had subsequently tested negative and would compete in the national championship and Olympic trials, which begins Thursday in Ottawa. The two were back on the ice for the first time on Monday practising.
"I think every athlete is probably thinking and feeling the same thing right now," Radford said. "There are already stories rolling in about COVID dashing Olympic dreams. I hope athletes are being as vigilant as they possibly can over these next couple of weeks."
Athletes across Canada and around the world are in the position of trying to decide whether to keep competing and training and risk exposing themselves to COVID-19, or protecting themselves by essentially doing nothing in the lead-up to the biggest athletic event of their lives.
Should an athlete test positive for COVID-19 now, less than then 30 days before the start of competition, they must provide three negative PCR tests and then submit that documentation to the Beijing Olympic committee. The organizing committee then has to clear that athlete to be fit to travel, and the International Olympic Committee has promised case-by-case assessments of athletes who recover after testing positive for COVID-19.
There are then two more negative PCR tests required to be able to get on the flight to Beijing, one 96 and one 72 hours from departure.
Challenge is keeping athletes safe
Last week in an interview with CBC Sports, David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee expressed concern about keeping athletes safe over the next month leading up to the first charter flight set for Jan. 26.
"The real challenge for us over the next 30 days is how do we make sure that Canadian participants can get to Beijing without contracting the virus and therefore become able to test negative to get into that scenario," he said.
This week, Shoemaker said the COC's medical and support staff learned from Tokyo 2020 and are confident they'll be able to keep athletes safe.
"Along with replicating what worked in Tokyo, examples of some of the additional steps we're taking for Beijing 2022 include mandating all Team Canada members be vaccinated, chartering flights with reduced seating to minimize close contacts, supplementing additional testing protocols, and providing a full supply of N95 masks for all Team Canada members," Shoemaker said.
It's proving to be a challenge, however.
The Canadian women's hockey had several players and staff in COVID-19 protocol in December, forcing the team to cancel its remaining exhibitions games ahead of the Olympics. The full team has not reunited since and the 26-person roster must be trimmed to 23 before Jan. 19.
Canada's bobsled team had 11 athletes and three support staff test positive within the past couple of weeks, forcing many out of competitions in Europe.
The mixed doubles Olympic curling trials were cancelled because of a rise in positive COVID-19 tests among athletes who were to compete at the event, and two curlers will now be selected by a group from Curling Canada, the COC and Own the Podiums.
Some Canadian long track and short track speed skaters have also tested positive over the past couple of months, but Skate Canada, the sport's governing body, wouldn't reveal how many of the athletes have had positive test results.
"It is our top priority to ensure the health and safety of our athletes, and their ability to travel to Beijing relies on our continued focus on this goal. With the help of our medical and support staff, we have put in place procedures to ensure our athletes have the safest daily training environment possible in the lead up to Beijing 2022," the organization said in a statement to CBC Sports.
In the meantime, all out-of-province and out-of-country training camps for the skaters have been cancelled.
There have been a couple of Canadian snowboarders who have tested positive for COVID-19, but its national sport organization said they had their slopestyle team in Calgary all last week where athletes tested daily at the Snow Rodeo event with no positive tests.
"I think it's fair to say we're focused on doing everything we can alongside the COC to ensure all necessary precautions, plans are in place, and willingness to be adaptable and flexible to ensure best practices are followed," Brendan Matthews of Canada Snowboard told CBC Sports.
Matthews said there have been a few location and plan changes to continue training, but upcoming World Cups and events in Canada have yet to be cancelled.
Therese Brisson, president of Alpine Canada, said her organization is closely monitoring the Omicron situation and adjusting training, competition and travel. She said they are confident in their risk mitigation plan that has "vaccination, testing, masking, physical distancing, and enhanced basic hygiene as key pillars."
As for any conversations about postponing the Olympics, last week Shoemaker suggested "it may well come up" with other participating winter sport nations, but the COC clarified this week they "are not talking to any national Olympic committees about postponement."
On Wednesday, the Swiss Olympic committee said it had been told by the IOC that the Olympics would go ahead as scheduled.
"We believe these Games are important for Canadians and people around the world, and we know the stories from these Games will be a source of inspiration and hope for millions," Shoemaker said.