Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics·Analysis

Canada's Olympic pullout works on so many levels

Canada's decision to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics if they're held this summer, amid a global pandemic, is obviously and absolutely the right move. And not just in a moral sense. It's also very savvy.

It took some guts, but this is a low-risk, high-reward move

Canada will be on the right side of history with its decision to say no to an Olympics this summer. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Pretty much everyone agrees that Canada's decision to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics if they're held this summer, amid a global pandemic, is the correct move.

"This was absolutely the right call and everyone should follow their lead," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today, echoing the opinion of the vast majority of the country and many around the world.

Trudeau probably meant "the right call" in a moral sense, and that is true. Everyone who had a hand in this move — the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, their athletes' commissions, the country's various sport organizations and the federal government — is rightly being celebrated for doing the right thing. And give them credit for boldness too. It's never easy sticking your neck out. The first guy through the wall, as they say, always gets bloody.

But let's also take a minute to appreciate the pure savviness of this move. When you look at it carefully, there's a ton of upside. And not much risk. It's actually pretty brilliant.

Over the last few days, as the drumbeat for postponing the Olympics to 2021 continued to build, it became fairly clear that several countries were at least mulling the option of bailing on a summer 2020 Games. So international support for such a move is all but assured. And the upside of beating everyone to the punch is big: Canada gets to be the hero of a major international news story. Others are sure to jump on the #cancel2020 bandwagon — Australia more or less followed Canada's lead by saying a team "could not be assembled for an Olympics this summer" and telling its athletes they "should prepare" for a Games in the summer of 2021. Officials from Germany, France and Portugal also voiced their support for a postponement today. But, for now, the spotlight belongs to Canada for taking the clearest and strongest stand.

And the downside risk is very low. Your biggest fear when you make a move like this is that everyone else shrugs and the Games go on without you. And it's not like the whole world rushed to Canada's side after the announcement. Russia, for example, is still backing the IOC's desire to wait things out for a bit before deciding what to do about Tokyo. 

But, realistically, there's no need to worry about the show going on without Canada. With each passing day, it appears more and more obvious that the Tokyo Olympics are simply not gonna happen in 2020.

The IOC likes to play things very close to its tailored vest. But the Olympic masters signalled what was really going on when they announced earlier on Sunday that, basically, they'd get back to us in four weeks with a decision on the Games. There were some lines in there about it still being early, and who knows, and let's hope for the best, and whatever. But, say what you will about the IOC, these guys aren't dumb. Everyone knows the world is still going to be a mess in four weeks. There's no magic bullet coming that quickly.

And even if — dream scenario here — the pandemic is showing signs of being subdued by then, is everyone going to suddenly be up for heading over to Japan for a big party with tens of thousands of people from 200-odd countries on the guest list? Extremely doubtful. Most likely, the IOC was just buying itself and its fellow sportocrats some time to work out the logistics (and, to be fair, there are many) of moving the Olympics to 2021.

That scenario was seemingly confirmed today by Canadian Dick Pound, a longtime IOC member who's known to speak out on his own.

"On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided," Pound told USA Today. "The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know."

A postponement announcement, he added, "will come in stages. We will postpone this and begin to deal with all the ramifications of moving this, which are immense."

Thanks to Canada's leadership (and the chain reaction of pullouts — or, at the very least, public calls for postponement — we can expect to see next), that four-week window the IOC asked for no longer seems realistic. Would you want to spend the next month getting screamed at by half the world? The IOC doesn't appear to have much choice but to, as Pound suggested, announce a makeshift postponement and promise more details to come.This is not an organization that takes kindly to having its hand forced (few billion-dollar enterprises are), but this seems like the only way to get everyone off their backs now.

The COC and CPC's rollout of the decision was also masterful. They had a slogan ready to go and everything: "Postpone today, conquer tomorrow." The tweet announcing the move also read: "More than a performance, a record or a medal. It's about being part of something bigger." And from the press release: "This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health."

Framing the decision like this — as a moral stance, a righteous example for everyone in the country (the world?) to follow — is another brilliant move. Not only is it tough to argue with, it might actually do some good. Most people seem to understand that social/physical distancing is of critical importance right now, and they're doing the right thing — sacrificing for the greater good. But not everyone. We've all heard the stories. Maybe if these people hear that their country is bailing on the Olympics, it'll sink in. It certainly can't hurt the cause.

On so many levels, then, it feels like Canada played this perfectly. Which, again, doesn't mean we have to be cynical about it. Just because you did the smart thing doesn't mean you didn't also do the right thing. The world doesn't need an Olympics this summer. It needs to fight the global pandemic that's threatening our entire way of life. That's all that matters right now. Deep down, everyone knows this. But sometimes, you still need someone to say out loud the thing that everyone knows.

For that, Canada's Olympic officials and athletes should take a bow. Hell, the entire country should. Why not. We're world leaders today. So celebrate. God knows we could all use it right now.

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