Sports·THE BUZZER

What happens to an Olympian who tests positive for COVID-19 before Beijing?

CBC Sports' daily newsletter goes through all the COVID-19 checks and balances athletes who test positive between now and the Olympics must face just to get to Beijing.

Outbreak in Canadian bobsleigh could make timeline tight for Olympic hopefuls

Fourteen members of the Canadian bobsleigh team have tested positive for COVID-19 this week. (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

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How a positive test could cost an athlete the Olympics

Fourteen members of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton tested positive for COVID-19 at a World Cup in Latvia, with 13 announced yesterday and an additional case today. The outbreak comes days after American ski star Mikaela Shiffrin announced she had tested positive as well.

Meanwhile, the Canadian mixed doubles curling trials were called off on Sunday due to positive tests among athletes, while Hockey Canada delayed the announcement of its Olympic women's team and cancelled a pair of exhibitions against the U.S. for the same reason. 

The athletes' top priority is obviously their health, but even with recovery the positive tests pose a significant hurdle to their participation — and any other athlete who might be exposed — in the Beijing Olympics, scheduled to begin Feb. 4.

The issue is the Olympics' COVID-19 playbook — the protocols established by the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Organizing Committee that allow athletes, staff and media entry into China.

Those who recover from the virus within 30 days of departure for China must produce two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart and at least eight days before leaving for the Olympics, plus two more on separate days within 96 hours of boarding the plane. Those final two negative tests are mandatory for all athletes. One more test must be taken by all at the airport upon arrival in Beijing.

This is the position in which some Canadian bobsleigh hopefuls now find themselves — many of whom are on the brink of Olympic qualification. Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton told CBC Sports it hopes to have more clarity next week on how the team selection process will be affected. It said other countries have suggested the international sport governing body use fewer races than normal to determine qualification.

It's unclear when the affected athletes, who are currently in quarantine, may return to competition. The next World Cup takes place next weekend in Germany and the Canadians are scheduled to return home following the final World Cup of the season in Switzerland in the middle of January. Read more about the Canadian bobsleigh outbreak here.

The timeline to the Olympics is already tight, with the first Canadian charter flight set to depart for Beijing on Jan. 26. It could mean an athlete who tests positive as soon as next week simply runs out of time to submit all the necessary documentation and testing to be granted entry to China. 

Normally, the next month would be full of various Olympic qualification events both national and international. But it's worth wondering now how many of those will, or even should, move forward. 

Canada's figure skating championships begin next Friday, and the calculus for holding the event now looks something like this: is a possible virus outbreak worth risking the mere presence of Canadian figure skaters in Beijing?

National sport organizations such as Skate Canada must submit their teams to the Canadian Olympic Committee by Jan. 19, with all entries sent to Beijing organizers five days later.

Given the overload of testing worldwide right now, there may even be questions about the capacity in certain countries to turn around results in that final 96-hour window before athletes go to China.

Once athletes reach Beijing, they're tested daily — but one positive result could be enough to knock them from their competition entirely.

Those who test positive but don't require hospitalization are sent to an isolation centre, where they're placed in WiFi-equipped rooms but not allowed to leave — even to go outside — until becoming fully asymptomatic and registering two negative tests at least 24 hours apart.

If athletes indeed cannot compete, each sport and event has different criteria for replacements. At Tokyo 2020, Canadian skateboarder Annie Guglia was flown to Japan as an alternate after the first athlete on the substitute list was thrust into the main competition. Guglia had tested negative twice before leaving Canada, and eventually competed herself. That situation is theoretically possible for Beijing too, per the Canadian Olympic Committee.

And none of that is to mention the lasting physical toll COVID-19 can leave — even on Olympians. Thirty-six days to go.

Skate Canada must submit their teams to the Canadian Olympic Committee by Jan. 19, with all entries needing to be sent to Beijing organizers five days later. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

Quickly...

Could the 2021-22 world juniors still happen? As sports fans have learned during the pandemic, the word cancel tends to be much more definite than postpone. And so when it was announced that the world juniors were cancelled yesterday due to a COVID-19 outbreak, it seemed final. But there is one last gasp of life: International Ice Hockey Federation president Luc Tardif left open the possibility of rescheduling the tournament later in the year, with all the same players eligible and with the support of the Alberta government. It's the same tact Tardif used when retroactively explaining the decision to call off the women's U18 championship last week. And hey, it wasn't too long ago that we saw a Stanley Cup awarded in August — a jumbled schedule is just a fact of pandemic life. Still, there are plenty of hurdles to clear before either tournament can move forward. Read more about the decision behind nixing the world juniors here.

Coming up on CBC Sports

Snow Rodeo: The first two snowboard slopestyle qualification runs at the Calgary World Cup were cancelled today due to inclement weather. However, medals are still set to be awarded tonight at 8 p.m. ET in both men's and women's ski halfpipe, where the field includes reigning Olympic gold medallist Cassie Sharpe of Canada. The snowboarders will try their luck again tomorrow at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET. Watch all the action here, and read a full preview of the event here.

Bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup: Canadian bobsleigh Olympic medal hopefuls Justin Kripps and Christine De Bruin appear to have avoided the virus outbreak and are set to compete at the event in Latvia alongside a full slate of Canadian skeleton athletes. Action begins on Friday at 2:30 a.m. ET, and you can watch it all here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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