As Olympics draw near, questions over athlete selection and COVID-19 stress grow

Kim Boutin of Canada is introduced before the start of the final of the women's 1500m at the ISU World Cup Short Track speed skating competition, a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics, at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The beauty of the Olympics is that the event gives the majority of Games participants a rare chance to shine on a true global stage.

Come up big at the Olympics and it can define a career, change a life, and make you a national hero. These same athletes perform in relative obscurity at a World Cup bobsled stop in Sigulda, Austria or a World Cup moguls event in Ruka, Finland – with gold medals won by Canadians Christine de Bruin and Mikael Kingsbury this season largely overshadowed back home when matched up against the pro sport behemoths.

So, from a strictly supporting-our-athletes perspective, it's good news that the Olympics remain scheduled for next month in Beijing (the choice of the host country is another story altogether).

Then, of course, there is public health. You can easily make a convincing argument that it's not a good idea to stage an Olympics while COVID-19 case counts are rising rapidly around the world.

Regardless, it's very clear the IOC desperately wants this Olympics to happen. And should that be the case, there's a cold, hard truth everyone has to live with: Because of the state of the world, there’s likely to be a degree of randomness in some events, an element of luck – and some athletes are going to be denied their Olympic shot through no fault of their own.

It's just another slice of pandemic life, with an invisible virus being the enemy.

A worker labours to assemble the Olympic Rings onto of a tower on the outskirts of Beijing, China, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in a month's time, making it the world's first dual Olympic city having hosted both the Summer and Winter games. (Ng Han Guan/AP)



Because of COVID-19, the road to Beijing is full of new obstacles – and just getting to the Games seems like (well) more than half the battle.

In a usual Olympic cycle, athletes often can plot out their schedules years in advance – knowing all the key dates where they hope to peak to lock up Games spots.

Now, some athletes have to play the waiting game and hope they get picked for Olympic spots that usually are based on performance in qualifiers. And even if they get that shot, they must hope they avoid getting COVID-19 – knowing it can destroy Olympic dreams before they travel to Beijing.

The past few weeks already have provided plenty of controversy when it comes to Olympic selection.

The Canadian Olympic mixed doubles curling qualifier was cancelled, meaning Curling Canada and the COC have to pick two athletes – which is sure to please some and anger others (and also has created some added stress ahead of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts).

Also called off were a last-chance Olympic qualifier for speed skaters in Quebec and two USA-Canada women’s hockey games in Alberta.

Other events have gone ahead – and still have produced anxiety.

The Canadian figure skating championships were held with no fans this past weekend in Ottawa. The first-year pair of Olympic veterans Vanessa James – who formerly represented France – and Eric Radford came out of retirement to join forces this season, but both contracted COVID-19 over the holidays. They dropped out at nationals after placing fourth in the short program.

Yet when Skate Canada picked its figure skating squad the day after the nationals, it went with James and Radford as one of its two teams – preventing an Olympic trip for second-place finishers Evelyn Walsh and Trentt Michaud.

Skate Canada said the nationals were just one part of the selection criteria (that’s been the case in previous years as well), but it didn’t pass the smell test for some.

“The Canadian pairs all sucked all season,” Meagan Duhamel, Radford’s former pairs partner, told Lori Ewing of The Canadian Press.

“The only teams to do a strong short and strong long in the same competition is Evelyn and Trentt and (gold medallists) Kirsten (Moore-Towers) and Michael (Marinaro) at Canadians. And since no team is a medal contender, we don’t need to pick based on potential.”

While it may not have been a factor in the selection criteria, the fact James and Radford both have had COVID-19 actually could help Canada.

Multiple reports have said China will not allow any athletes into the country who test positive 14 or fewer days before departure. Because they have already had Covid during this wave, James and Radford are unlikely to have any testing concerns.

“The ones that have tested positive and have come through to the other side, we’re kind of seeing the silver lining in all of this,” Canadian bobsledder Cynthia Appiah told Postmedia’s Dan Barnes. “It’s like, ‘OK now we can rest easy and go into Beijing and not have to worry about getting Covid because we’ve just gotten it, right?’

“I know there are people within our sport … who haven’t tested positive yet, and they’re panicking.”

Hockey Canada (which hasn’t named a women’s or men’s team following women’s Covid cases and the NHL dropout) and Curling Canada owe it to their athletes to make selection decisions ASAP to give them their best chance to live in as close to a virtual bubble as possible.

As we know, though, even doing that offers no guarantees when it comes to the Omicron variant.

It appears the IOC and China are determined to declare Games on at the opening ceremony on Feb. 4 – no matter how bizarre that feels to some.

Exactly who will be there – and how they get there – remains a rather large question.

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