In the wake of the early days of the pandemic last March and the incessant messaging by the International Olympic Committee saying the Tokyo Olympics would go on as scheduled that July, six-time Canadian Olympian and doctor-in-training Hayley Wickenheiser sounded the alarm.
On March 17, 2020, she took to social media, sending out a tweet saying it was insensitive and irresponsible for the Games to go forward. Five days later, Canada’s National Olympic Committee took the bold step of announcing it would not send athletes to Tokyo that summer. And on March 24, a week after Wickenheiser ignited a conversation, the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed.
Now, in the midst of a third wave with aggressive coronavirus variants ravaging communities globally and many places in Canada locked down, Wickenheiser is once again questioning whether it is safe to stage the Games.
“I have to ask the questions. And I think they’re fair questions,” Wickenheiser told CBC Sports. “Prior to the pandemic I said there’s no way the Olympics can go ahead because history told us there was no way they could. And now I’m saying I don’t know, I wonder if they can again.”
She’s uniquely positioned to speak to the issue as a four-time gold medallist and a member of the IOC’s Athletes Commission. She is also a week away from graduating with a medical degree.
Wickenheiser understands all of the training, preparation and money that’s been poured into these Games, but said the bottom line should be safety and public health.
“This decision needs to be made by medical and health experts, not by corporate and big business,” she said. “A very clear and transparent explanation needs to be given if the Games are going to go ahead.”
‘Seen such suffering’
Wickenheiser has been running off her feet inside the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, trying to keep up with the rush of people being admitted with COVID-19. The last thing on her mind when tending to patients and seeing the constant anxiety, stress and fear in people’s eyes are the Olympics and Paralympics.
“It’s very hard after what I’ve witnessed this past year and then think about the Games. I’ve seen such suffering,” Wickenheiser said.
More than 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes are expected to flood Japan in July, August and September, with tens of thousands more media, sponsors and other stakeholders also attending. The vaccination rate in Japan is less than 2 per cent of the population and surveys indicate that most Japanese residents do not want the Games.
‘This is someone’s country we’re going to’
“I think we maybe have another month before they have to make a decision,” she said. “If things change drastically in terms of vaccinations in the country of Japan. Cases there are spiking … This is someone’s country we’re going into. These are real people living in crisis. We have to be sensitive to the needs of a nation.”
All this while hundreds of Canadian athletes continue to try to find ways to train and compete with restrictions and limited travel, not even sure if they’re going to get a proper opportunity to qualify.
In a January interview with CBC Sports, Canadian runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford said she can’t see the Games going forward without every competitor being vaccinated.
“I don’t think it’s a realistic scenario to have an Olympics without a vaccine,” she said.
WATCH | Gabriela DeBues-Stafford on Olympics and vaccine:
There is rising stress among Canadian athletes, many who are reluctant to speak publicly about their concerns around the Games being able to be staged in a safe environment.
Wickenheiser understands their fears, as well as the dilemma of having worked so hard to qualify and having to make an almost impossible decision to compete in an Olympics in the midst of a pandemic.
“My heart breaks for these athletes that have trained for this one moment to have it maybe taken away from them,” she said. “There’s no winner in this, whether it’s cancelled or goes ahead. It’s just a difficult situation all around.”
That’s why she said it shouldn’t be the athletes or IOC making the decision to move forward or not, because she knows what she would do if she was still competing.
IOC ‘shouldn’t be making that call’
“I would go at any cost. You almost need someone else outside with less invested than you to say it is or isn’t worth it,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be the IOC making that call. That should be the experienced doctors and physicians who have dealt with pandemics and people with no skin the game and nothing to gain or lose from this.”
Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker said his organization is mindful of the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, but they remain confident the Games will be staged safely and successfully.
“We believe these Games are important both for the athletes who will fulfill their dreams and the fans at home who will be inspired when they need it most,” Shoemaker wrote in an email to CBC Sports. “The IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee have developed health and safety protocols to a degree that we’ve never seen at a Games.”
Athletes are not required to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Japan to compete and vaccines are also not mandatory. Wickenheiser has serious concerns about that.
“There will be outbreaks. It’s impossible to avoid,” she said, mirroring comments made to CBC this week by Canada’s Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist. “Can we get everyone vaccinated on time? Can we protect the athletes? My job on the IOC Athletes’ Commission is to advocate for the health and safety of the athletes. I don’t know if we can do a bubble that can protect the athletes.”
Shoemaker said Canadian athletes will not be jumping the queue to get the vaccine and that frontline workers and essential workers are the priority.
“With the growing numbers of vaccines available to Canadians, we are hopeful that athletes will have access to them prior to Tokyo, which would provide an additional layer of protection to the significant countermeasures that have been put in place,” Shoemaker said, adding his organization is in constant communication with medical experts for guidance on proper protocols.
As the clock ticks down to July 23 to begin the Tokyo Olympics, Wickenheiser is staying focused on matters at home. She’s now started a movement called “This is your Shot,” urging Canadians to get vaccinated.
WATCH | Effect of the pandemic on the Olympics:
The campaign, fuelled by sporting and entertainment stars from across Canada, will begin on April 28.
“People don’t know what to believe. They’re tired of listening to politicians,” she said. “We’ve had poor leadership in parts of this country politically. The communication has been bad and people don’t know what to believe. We have to control what we can and that’s getting vaccinated.”
Quite simply, Wickenheiser said listen to the doctors and experts rather than the IOC, sponsors and stakeholders.
“This is what it’s all about. Money and broadcast rights and promises made. I question if the health and the well-being of the athletes attending has been at the true forefront. I have to ask that question because it wasn’t when the Games were first postponed,” Wickenheiser said.