'Frayed nerves': Top Olympic official confronts grief while Canadian athletes fret over Tokyo

Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission for Tokyo, has been doing her best to track down information and calm the nerves of Canadian athletes who are fearful their Olympic dreams will be dashed. 

Canadian chef de mission disputes report suggesting Summer Games will be cancelled

Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission, and David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, are both confident the Tokyo Olympics will proceed as planned this year. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It has been a dizzying 24 hours in the Olympic news cycle, with thousands of athletes, coaches, government officials and reporters trying to sift through what's fact and what's fiction.

Are the Games going forward like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists? Or are they being cancelled? 

Inside her Toronto home, Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission for Tokyo, was doing her best to track down information Thursday afternoon about a published report suggesting the Japanese government wants to cancel the Games. Her phone immediately started lighting up. 

"The story was first flagged to me by an athlete. I looked at the article. When you take the time to look at the original article, there was conjecture. It was someone guessing," McBean told CBC Sports.

McBean, a three-time Olympic champion rower, went into full information-gathering mode all while trying to calm the nerves of Canadian athletes who were tweeting and texting and phoning, fearful their Olympic dreams were dashed. 

"I wanted to make sure we were getting to athletes before they started going down a rabbit hole of fear, doubt, or sadness." McBean said. "I knew that we wanted to and needed to get to it quickly because athletes were picking up on this. People are on frayed nerves."

WATCH | 6 months out from scheduled Olympic start, here's what we know:

What we actually know about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 6 months out

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
With rumours flying around about a possible cancellation, Jacqueline Doorey breaks down what we really know about the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games with just 6 months to go.

Hours after the Times of London story, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker took to Twitter to issue a statement.

The committee "has confidence that the Games can be staged safely and successfully given what has been learned in sport over the last several months and the emphasis the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee have placed on COVID-19 countermeasures," Shoemaker wrote on Twitter.

McBean said their swift action and proactive approach was crucial during those valuable hours after the initial report.

"I was really proud of the Canadian Olympic Committee's response to confirm what we knew — that the Games are still very much happening."

WATCHOlympic officials deny reports that Tokyo Olympics may be cancelled:

IOC denies reports Tokyo Olympics may be cancelled

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Six months from the scheduled start of the Summer Olympics, it appears the event may face more hurdles. Olympic officials are denying a report the Tokyo games may be cancelled.

Emotional time

It's been an emotional couple of weeks for McBean, who on Jan. 11 lost her rowing partner and longtime friend, Kathleen Heddle, to cancer. 

Heddle and McBean won Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the coxless pair and double sculls respectively. Heddle also earned gold with the women's eight in 1992.

With all the craziness and unknowns around the Olympics, the postponement, this latest report and a pandemic still forcing most of the world into lockdown, Heddle's advice has very much been on McBean's mind. 

"Kathleen Heddle is always with me," McBean said, beginning to cry. "And she taught me to stay focused on the things that are important and I apply that now.

"And what's important is that athletes remain focused on what they can do and that they listen to reliable sources. Listen to the people closest to you who you can trust. And that's what's important. That's what I take forward as the chef. And how we're going to proceed with the next six months."

WATCH | IOC's Bach says Japan remains committed to Tokyo Games:

IOC President says they have the 'full support of the Japanese government' for Tokyo 2020

2 years ago
Duration 4:33
Six month out from the Tokyo Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach says the Games will go ahead and vows they will be "safe and secure for all participants."

The next six months will no doubt be littered with challenges for the IOC and Olympic organizing committee. Polls show Japanese residents overwhelmingly don't want the Games. 

Only about 50 per cent of the approximately 11,000 Olympic hopeful athletes have qualified for the Games. And on Friday, Japanese health officials reported 108 deaths, a record daily high. The country has yet to start a vaccination program in the country but has a target date of late February. 

A woman wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near a banner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

'No Plan B'

Much of the rhetoric and statements issued from the COC, IOC and many other national Olympic committees in the last days have an eerily similar tone to last March, when the decision was made to postpone the Olympics for a year.

The COC made the bold move of being first to declare its athletes would not participate, citing public and athlete safety as the priority. 

IOC president Thomas Bach said then there's "no Plan B," meaning in the IOC's view the Olympics are happening and that the IOC is fully committed to making it happen. 

He uttered those same words Thursday.

"A lot has changed. Everything has changed. I think everyone around the world would say there's nothing the same in our understanding of the coronavirus," McBean said. "We know a lot more about management and prevention. We know it's an airborne virus. There was a lot more fear of unknowns last March. Now we understand the value of 14 days and isolation. We understand the value of masks. We know so much more."

WATCH | Olympian DeBues-Stafford talks importance of vaccines:

Why a COVID-19 vaccine isn't the key to a fair Olympics

2 years ago
Duration 5:52
Jacqueline Doorey speaks with Canadian middle distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, how it can affect the Olympics, and whether athletes deserve to cut the line.

When pressed about those same public and athlete health concerns as things stand now, McBean said it is still the priority. However, she's unwavering when it comes to whether the Olympics go ahead.

"I am confident. I think international sports federations around the world are doing everything they can to understand the virus," she said. "Sport at its core is resilient. It's about figuring things out. They don't say that's an Olympic-sized task for nothing. You don't get to win gold medals easily. You have to figure out an Olympic-sized task."

That's what this continues to be. A task so immense many are skeptical it's going to happen — or why it's happening in the face of a pandemic that's killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

"Our athletes are just as conflicted as everyone because they are Canadians first before they are athletes. And like everyone they are doing their best to stay connected to their passion," McBean said. 

"That's what the Olympics have always been. The resilience of the athletes who represent the kid next door. They seem more like us and our communities. I think the Olympics athletes have rallied and have been part of their communities."

McBean concedes it won't be like the Games she attended, or the ones Canadians are used to watching. Under normal circumstances there are so many extracurricular activities and parties outside of the competitions. McBean knows that can't happen this time.

"The Olympics are going to be different," she said. "There are two parts — the competition and the Games, which is a celebration, and the parties and all the other stuff. The way they'll happen is because they'll be paired down to the competitions."

"We hope to take a team of over 400 Canadian athletes to test themselves against citizens of the world and show the world a little bit of light."

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