On Sunday, the board of the Canadian Olympic Committee met to do what everyone is doing these days – figure out what the hell is going on.
While they were holding that meeting, the International Olympic Committee said that it needed four weeks to decide whether the Olympics would continue as scheduled, starting in July.
But Canada had already decided for itself and, in some ways, for the world.
On Sunday night, the COC announced it would only participate in a postponed and rescheduled Games. And that, essentially, is that.
A few hours later, Australia followed suit. By Monday afternoon, occasionally erratic IOC loudspeaker Dick Pound was telling USA Today that he expected an imminent postponement – contrary to the IOC’s last communiques.
If and when that comes to pass, Canada did that. We cancelled an Olympics that should have been cancelled days ago.
“We had to do this because we can’t in good conscience go on,” COC president Tricia Smith said Monday afternoon. “It was the toughest decision of my life. My stomach’s been in knots for a long time.”
Smith was first among equals in the room when the call was made, but says the move received unanimous support throughout the national sports establishment.
Why Canada? Why now? Why not wait for the IOC to get around to doing the right thing?
“Lives are at risk, so c’mon,” Smith said. “Sport, in terms of that, is pretty far down the line.”
They won’t make a Heritage Moment out of this decision, but they ought to. An adult needed to put the actuarial tables away for a moment and lead on this file. Canada was that adult.
In so doing, the COC hasn’t just pushed the IOC off the podium, but made the ruling body look like ridiculous ditherers.
From the most charitable viewpoint, this was an instance of a large corporation getting so into the weeds on the details that it forgot about the swamp.
It’s possible only Canada could manage this. A country not big enough to treat the Games as an extension of its power, but also not small enough to be written off as a pipsqueak in the competitive equation. A country with just enough to lose that this move doesn’t seem like its own sort of opportunism.
If a country such as that won’t comply, there is no way countries that aspire to common sense – your Germanys and Frances – and those who sometimes don’t – Russia, the United States, China – can.
An Olympics without Canada and Australia (51 combined total medals at Rio 2016) is already a boycott Olympics. Which is not an Olympics. It’s an expensive track meet.
So we didn’t just tip the first domino in this scenario. We set the dominos up. One of the planet’s richest, smuggest cabals just got undone by a few reasonable sports executives and a Wifi connection.
What comes next is predictable. First, there will be the online woo-hoo’ing, which started immediately.
Shortly thereafter, there will follow the dissent to the dissenting.
As Smith put it, “We might take some grief.”
Some may suggest Canada exceeded its portfolio, or was too quick to decide. Some of those calls may come from inside the house.
Shortly before the COC made its decision, sprinter and CBC host Anson Henry did a video Q&A with five Canadian track athletes. He asked them if – assuming nothing had changed for the better – they would still go to Tokyo.
He got two Yes’s, two Maybe’s and one No.
The reasoning of the Yes’s was that they could go to Japan, compete, then self-isolate afterward. Even if they grew ill, they trusted in their youth and vigour to protect them.
Except they’re not going to flap their arms and fly to Japan. Someone has to take them there on a plane. Once there, someone else must house them. Someone else has to feed them. A whole bunch of other someones will have to maintain the fields of play and drive the buses that get them there. That’s a lot of someones who are not as invested in a medal as they are.
In the interim, they have to train. Some competitors can do that solo, but it’s hard to practise for women’s eight rowing without eight women. Some can work out in the park – which, to be clear, no one wants you going to any more – but the vast majority need specialized facilities.
No athlete is an island, at a time when we are all being asked to do just that. We must all temporarily be islands, so that people we do not know and will never meet do not die because of us.
In those circumstances, doing all the things that need to be done in order to stage an Olympics isn’t just untenable, it’s selfish.
Neither Canada nor anyone else is suggesting the Olympics will not go forward. Just that they will not go forward until COVID-19 has been brought to heel.
If a theatre caught fire while you were inside it, no one would think it wise if the actors continued performing as the firefighters did their thing. If the performers told you not to worry and stay in your seats, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave until the building was declared safe.
That’s the decision the IOC could not bring itself to make. So Canada made it for the IOC.
“Olympic values are our values,” Smith said, speaking for the country. “We can speak up. Not every country has that freedom that we do.”
This moment won’t be remembered when we compile our sports highlights of the decade. Nobody likes to celebrate the downers and, however wise the decision, pulling the plugs on an Olympics is an awful disappointment.
But it ought to be memorialized.
We are in a time when people are being asked to give up something. Some are giving up much more than others.
Canada just made a small, collective gesture in that direction on behalf of the world. At a time when leaders are called for, at least in this instance, Canada will be able to say it led.
The Globe and Mail, March 23, 2020