The Games of the 32nd Olympiad that were scheduled to take place in July and August in Tokyo will no longer be held this summer.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee had said it was going to take four weeks to make a decision on the fate of the 2020 Games, but the Canadian Olympic Committee pulled its athletes out on Sunday night and put immediate pressure on other countries to do the same.
Canada brought 314 athletes who combined to win 22 medals at the Rio Games in 2016, but in 2020 the country will be remembered as the first to stand up to the IOC after announcing the COC would refuse to send its athletes to compete during a pandemic.
On Tuesday, the decision to postpone the Games was made official by Japan and the IOC. The rescheduled date will likely be beyond 2020, but no later than the summer of 2021.
The 2020 Olympics are just the most recent sporting event disrupted due to COVID-19, and after soccer’s 2020 European Championships and Copa America were both postponed one year, it seemed only a matter of time before the Olympics would be subject to the same fate.
With a travel ban in Japan, hosting the world for a non-essential sporting event isn’t feasible. But collaborating with 206 countries, 30 international sports federations, and over 11,000 athletes to move the Games back a year is also a logistical nightmare.
That’s especially true for track and field athletes, who taper and peak based on a four-year cycle with world championships filling the void between Olympic Games. How are Canadian medal contenders dealing with this disruption, both personally and professionally?
Aaron Brown won a bronze medal as part of Canada’s 4×100-metre relay team at those same Games, and dominated the 2019 Canadian Track and Field championships, finishing as a gold medallist in the 100-metre and 200-metre.
Andre De Grasse won the silver medal in the 200-metre and bronze medals in both the 100-metre and 4×100-metre relay at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Georgia Ellenwood is a heptathlete who is an eight-time NCAA Division I All-American and won gold at the 2018 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Sportsnet spoke to the trio to discuss how they found out Canada was pulling its athletes out of the Olympics, how to train during a pandemic, and what is next in their pursuit of a medal.
Sportsnet: How are you and your family doing?
Aaron Brown: I’m in good health, my family is in good health. First and foremost, that’s the most important thing: making sure that everybody is still in good spirits and healthy and not being negatively affected by this in terms of putting their life at risk.
But I don’t know what the rest of the season will look like in terms of the surrounding meets. If they’re all going to be shut down or what. It’s kind of just a whirlwind and figuring out what the next move is. I don’t see an end in sight so far. I don’t see any good news where it’s like, it’s going to take this amount of time and things will be back to normal by this date.
Andre De Grasse: I’m worried. I’m still processing everything. I don’t even know. I’m just processing everything. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. My phone has been blowing up like crazy. But the kids are good. They don’t know what’s going on. We’re pretty busy with the kids right now because we’re at home so I’m just trying to keep them busy.
Georgia Ellenwood: This sounds weird. I had such a big goal in my head, and I didn’t think that anything would stand in the way of me getting there. I remember being in San Diego a couple of weeks ago and talking to the other girls that are training for the Olympics as well. They were doing a news story on us talking about how it could potentially get worse and what do we think about maybe dealing with, it not happening this year. And all of us are like, there’s no way they wouldn’t have it. Like people would lose a bunch of money. It would be just such a big production, to be able to move it and fast forward a few weeks later and here we are. Having the official statement that they will postpone to 2021 is probably the best-case scenario, especially after Canada has announced that they’ve withdrawn their athletes. So, it was just kind of a roller coaster. But I think this is the best-case scenario, and I’m trying to take the positives out of it. As I’m sure all other athletes in the same situation are too.
SN: How did you find out Canada was pulling out the 2020 Olympics?
AB: I was watching Netflix with my wife, and I got a call from one of my friends and I ignored it because I thought it was just something else. But then I got texts from somebody else saying, wow, no Olympics, how do you feel? And then I’m like, whoa. So, I press pause. And then I went on Twitter and I saw the links and all the articles and stuff, and a bunch of people started asking me how I felt. That’s when I’m like, OK, I’ve got to check this out. And I started reading the articles. Then I got the email from Canada’s Olympic committee saying that they’re calling for postponing and that’s when you know, the waves of messages started to come in. That’s how I found out.
ADG: It’s crazy. Literally just cleaning out my house in my garage. Trying to put the kids to bed. And I hadn’t looked at my phone in like an hour and, literally, my phone was just going crazy. Like I had so many messages and people were telling me to share the news and I was like, what? And then they called me. I didn’t really believe it. So, I was like, OK, let me try to check my email or something, let me try to get some facts. And then when I got the email, I was surprised. I was like, whoa. I told my girlfriend, who competes for the USA, and she checked her email and didn’t get anything, so I was like, oh man, like what is going on right now? So yeah, I didn’t really get much sleep last night.
GE: I didn’t know until I saw it on social media. So, Instagram, I saw breaking news by CBC. And then I saw everyone else posting about it too. I follow a lot of high-level track and field athletes. At first, I thought it was a hypothetical because there’s so many people posting that they should start training for 2021. But I think when Canada made the bold move and actually went forward with withdrawing their athletes officially, that’s when it became really real and that’s when I knew that things were changing. Now my path has been altered.
SN: Was there a moment in time or specific event that changed your thinking about COVID-19 that made you realize the Olympics might be in jeopardy?
AB: So there’s two. The first one was when the NBA got shut down. That was when I was like, whoa, this is real. If the NBA did it, everything else is in play to get shut down as well. And sure enough, NHL, MLS, PGA, all of them just followed suit. Right after the NFL had their OTAs and all that suspended activity. So that’s when it first became real.
I started thinking immediately Tokyo could be next. And then I thought, OK, maybe it’s far out enough that it might blow over. And then I saw the first three Diamond League events pushed back. And then I saw them talking about postponing the Olympics. I’m like, OK, this is getting real. And then my school that I was training at, a private school, Montverde, they shut down the track and shut down school and we no longer were able to use the track. So, we had to go to a grass facility in a soccer field. And that’s when I’m like, OK, this is way different than anything I’ve ever experienced my entire life.
You know, like we had the Zika scare in 2016 and that proved more hysteria than anything. I found like when we got there, it was like everybody had their fears wash away. This is nothing like that. This is serious, and this is something that’s affecting many different industries, many different families and corporations. Businesses are in trouble. You know, the stock market’s in a frenzy. It’s like the whole world stopped for this virus.
ADG: It definitely got serious in the past, in the past month. I didn’t know how feared it was when it first started, and it was in China. As it kept going and countries were closing borders and stuff was getting locked down, that’s when I was like, this thing is getting really, really, really serious. The back of my mind, I’m like, eventually this thing is going to blow over as things can go back to normal. They’ll find the vaccine or we’ll figure it out. But I didn’t know that it was going to get this hectic, this serious, this crazy.
GE: I think I knew that there was going to be some sort of change when it started affecting the NCAA season. So, when they told the NCAA athletes that they could potentially not have a national, I thought that this would affect the professionals as well, and I didn’t think that it would get as serious as affecting the Olympic games, but that escalated that quickly. So, I think at that point I was like, I have to just go with things, and this is out of my control, so all I can do is control what’s in my power.
SN: How has social distancing impacted your ability to train?
AB: So we can’t go to the weight room. Those are all closed down. The tracks are all closed down. We have to disinfect and hand wash and use hand sanitizer in between touching anything like, benches and our warmup mats and all that stuff. We’ve been doing that for a long time. When this thing first hit our coach was already on it. He was getting Lysol wipes out. He’s getting sprays. He had hand sanitizers at our practice. So, we’ve been doing this for a long time. As it got worse and worse, he really started to stress. I think the silver lining of it being postponed is at least we know that for sure. We don’t have to still prepare for July and think that it’s going to go away overnight and they’re just going to say, OK, and expect us to be ready. So, at the very least, we know we have some time to prepare.
ADG: It’s definitely been a factor trying to train through all this. They closed a lot of facilities around the world. Obviously, I would try to figure out Plan B options and I’ll try to find a school to train. That was when, people are like, no, please stay home. Just try to find a way to just continue to stay fit, whether it’s more swimming in my backyard or doing stuff in the house.
GE: Especially for the heptathlon, having training partners and having people to push you is a key element of getting better. I’m lucky to have a brother that’s also in track and field. So, we do training sessions together since we’re living in the same household. Not being able to seek out other people to push me not knowing where I’m at, not having a coach, it kind of puts you in this weird lost space where you’re training, but you don’t know if you’re progressing. You don’t even know if you really should be training at this point. People are telling you to stay inside. What are the limits of the social distancing? So, you’re questioning yourself a lot in your need to make sure that you’re not putting anyone else in danger and you’re really following the safety precautions.
SN: Given the abnormal lead-up to the Olympics, would there be an asterisk around the results if the Games went ahead in 2020?
AB: I mean, every case is different, and some places are hit harder than others. Some people are fortunate to have access to train with social distancing, some can’t even leave their house because they’re in quarantine and lockdown. So, it becomes a matter of fairness. And at that point you don’t want to have a Games where half are prepared, half are in difficult situations.
The Olympics, one of their pillars that they stand on is a fairness and equality. And I think it’s anything, but at this point, because countries are all different, dealing with it differently.
ADG: I think it would be, it’s pretty tough for a lot of people. There’s no trials. How’re you going to end up choosing people? I know they sent out an email to my girlfriend saying they might have to choose people based on past results. That’s definitely probably not fair to a lot of people. So that would be pretty tough.
GE: I think there would definitely. So many athletes are limited in what they can do right now. And it’s putting some people at an advantage or at a disadvantage because depending on where you are, I know some people in Calgary right now training and there’s snow on the ground there and they have no access to an indoor or outdoor track. So, they literally have to find ways to get better in a confined space in their house.
Meanwhile, I still have access to the community track. Obviously, we are practising social distancing and it’s pretty dead when I go there. But even that right now is a benefit. So, I think it puts people at an uneven playing ground and so many athletes are limited, and I don’t think we’ll be ready. Even if you do have access to the track, you don’t have access to equipment or training partners or coaches, and that’s what you need to get better. If it went along in 2020, I don’t think it would be as competitive as previous years.
SN: Even if the Olympics are cancelled, there are still other competitions scheduled this year. How do you prepare for an unknown season?
AB: I really just defer to my coach and my agent and kind of play it by what they recommend. I know for sure I have to do some type of activity. I can’t just take six months off and expect to approach next season the same way. I can’t completely lose shape and fitness, so I’ve got to do some type of activity to stay in some type of shape. Whether I actually race or not is up in the air. I don’t think my team has had enough time to process what the next move is.
ADG: I don’t know yet. We don’t know. My coach doesn’t know. My teammates, we really don’t know yet. So, we’re just, playing the guessing game, playing the waiting game.
GE: I don’t know if I’ll continue to compete this summer. I think it depends on when things return back to as normal as possible. I’d like to get a heptathlon in this season. Even if that is in preparation for 2021, I think it would be smart to try to remain on the same path, as much as possible. I probably will need it. It’s hard because you train so much and you think you’re in the peak shape right now in preparation for the Olympics that were supposed to be in the summer and now you don’t know what to do with all that energy and you want to put it somewhere, but you’re so limited in what you can do.
And so, I think even if there are competitions that we’re allowed to participate in soon, I think a lot of athletes will, even if they don’t have to and if there is no reason to have high marks this year. I think athletes just want to be able to compete because they’ve been preparing for something and they want to put that energy somewhere.
SN: How would the entire season being cancelled set you back as an athlete?
AB: At this point, I’ve kind of accepted that this is an abnormal year both on and off the track. So, I pride myself on trying to be mentally tough and weather each storm. And usually that manifests on the track and it’s like dealing with injuries or subpar results or just trying to improve a certain thing in practice with my technique. So, it’s definitely a different form of adversity, something that’s out of my control. But I think just with the experience I have over the years; different things are going to pop up in different ways. I’m just going to stay ready, mentally, especially for when they say, OK, this is the time, this is the date, and I’m going to be all in for that.
Understand that this is a difficult time for everybody, and everybody is in the same boat. So, it’s not like it’s isolated to just me. Knowing that everybody’s going to have to deal with this new date or a new schedule, I’m going to deal with it the best I can and make sure that I don’t let it bring me down and I’m just going to prepare for it.
ADG: Lose a lot of fitness. Definitely don’t want to get out of shape. Some people might need something to strive for or they might lose that drive, that motivation a little bit, to train. I mean, it’s just tough.
GE: I’m definitely trying to take the positives. When I first read everything, I was completely devastated and I’m sure so many other athletes were. But now that I’ve had time to process it, I think I’m taking the worst-case scenario and trying to make it beneficial for me or trying to see how I can improve in the environment that we’re given right now. And if that were to be the case, I would focus on what am I weakest in right now.
SN: What steps have you taken to maintain and monitor your mental health during this time?
AB: I just leaned on my circle, my coach, my agent, my wife, my teammates, my friends, and it gives me a sense of community that we’re all in this together. So, you don’t feel like this is just happening to you. We just had our Nike campaign this weekend where we’re all putting out a picture of us working out in our own homes. So, its kind of unites us all. It makes it all feel like we’re holding it together. That definitely helps for a sense of mental health. I’m not feeling alone in this.
I was already talking to Penny Werthner, who’s the Athletics Canada sports psychologist, just to try to find ways to be the best version of myself. Trying to get every little edge that I can, so I already had been doing that and this just has another layer of something to talk to her about. So, in terms of mentality right now, I’m still in pretty good spirits. The best that I can be given the circumstances.
It’s tough, but I just feel like I’m at a point where I’m able to handle things better than ever before and be able to step back and look at the big picture and be fortunate for my own health. The fact that I was still young enough that I’m in my prime and I’ll still have my years ahead of me and we’ll see brighter days. I just try to look at the positive and be as happy as I can ’cause getting down is not really going do much for me.
ADG: The focus, definitely, on mental health comes into place. You don’t know what to prepare for. You don’t know what’s going on. How are we going to get through this? I was trying to stay away from the media a little bit and try not to read into it too much. But I mean, it’s tough because don’t want to be ignorant to this kind of situation.
GE: If I’m staying in the house, just upset about what happened, it’s not going to be helpful. I think we have to see that the postponement to 2021, our training starts now. So, I think that means for me, I need to make my body healthy. I know that I’ve had problems in my feet, so I’m going to get on that as soon as possible. Do the small tedious workouts that we don’t want to do. Just to make sure that when we really have to do this again and regenerate everything that we’ve done, that we’re going to be a level up than where we were before.
SN: The lead-up and reaction from the Olympics are a huge marketing opportunity and revenue generator for Olympic athletes. What is that potential fiscal impact on amateur Olympic athletes?
AB: I have a really good marketing agency with Manifesto. They know what they need to do to make sure that the partners are still happy with the deals that they have and begin to manage the situation the best we can. I don’t really think about that aspect too much. The partners that I do have already expressed remorse and sent messages that they are behind us and they still support us through all this, and they understand that this is pretty much something that’s completely out of our control, and they’re going do the best they can.
I’m really fortunate to have partners like that who still supported me through things like this. I know there’s other people who aren’t fortunate enough to have partners like that. So, I count my blessings that I do have that already. I feel for other people who might have been needing this as their breakout moment to garner some new partnerships and support because they don’t have any and it’s difficult to train, so I feel for people in worse positions than I am. So, I’m not going to count my losses and feel bad for myself knowing that other people are having it worst.
ADG: I don’t know yet. That’s probably a question that I have to put up to discuss with my agent.
GE: I was thinking about that today actually. The amateur athletes that are looking to break through, especially the ones that are just finishing in the NCAA, they got robbed of their last season and now they have to try and go professional without having something to solidify their achievements. I think a lot of athletes in the NCAA and Canada now looking to go professional don’t have that last little boost to show sponsors and to show brands what they have and what potential they can have to make a good partnership going into 2020.
It’s really hard exactly to wrap their head around it because if they do want a good shot at 2021, they have to have support, whether that be financial support, whether that be an agent, whether that be partnering with other brands to make sure that they’re in a good enough spot to train and have the facilities to be able to train for that high level of competition. I think it definitely puts them back a lot.
I think this is the time that they need to start working at it because it’s going to take longer than usual, so they need to start talking to people who’ve been through it. They need to start connecting with agents. Because it’s pushed back to 2021, this might give them a good chance to have a whole year to figure that out.
SN: Given the health risks, did you feel comfortable travelling to Tokyo for the Olympics?
AB: I’m not an expert on it but based on the limited knowledge that I know about it, I was thinking that it would still be fine for us to go if we had maybe nobody in the crowd and we just did it like a streaming event and, somehow, we practice social distancing. I felt like there’d be a way to maybe make it work, but at the same time, that might’ve been just wishful thinking.
I think they ultimately made the best decision to postpone it. Just given that this thing could spread in so many ways. So, I would have done it and then sort of quarantined myself to make sure I didn’t bring it back and obviously affect other people in my community. If there was an option for me to go out there and compete and then just be in isolation for however long they needed to be and test to make sure I was good before I came back and reinstated myself in the community, I would do whatever to make sure that everybody was safe. Making a decision for us took that off the table.
ADG: Personally, I probably didn’t feel comfortable because I’m not going out right now, but I thought, you know, I’ll just put those thoughts to bed, hoping things would be under control in the back of my mind.
GE: I think that I was kind of blinded by how badly I wanted to go to the Olympics. I know that health and safety is always first, and in such a weird state that I didn’t know what was going to happen, that I was kind of just waiting for something, someone to make a decision. I knew that health would be a factor. I don’t think they would go through with it as it was scheduled with the same amount of people at the event. I think if we saw a recovery in the spread of this virus that they might’ve had it with no people in the stands. So, it wouldn’t have been the same. So, by that time and seeing how the severity of this has gotten really intense, I don’t know if I would have wanted to compete at an Olympics that isn’t the same as previous Olympics. I would want it to have the same energy. The same competitiveness as the past. So, at this point, and seeing how it’s progressed and how so many people’s health is at risk, I don’t think I would have wanted to participate in something like that.
SN: Did you feel the decision to pull out from the 2020 Olympics was too soon given there is still a couple months?
AB: That’s a tough question because I see both sides. On one end, if they waited, people are still preparing for something. People are going to do everything they can to be in a situation to be ready and not what’s advised, meaning they’re going to still try and train. They’re still going to try and get into the weight rooms. They’re still going to have the training and do all the things that you’re advised not to do. Making that decision, people don’t have to risk their lives to prepare.
I think Canada made the decision that’s best for the most people. In global pandemics like this, that’s what matters most. So, in terms of the athletic standpoint, it might’ve been premature, but in terms of global health and the health and safety of Canadians, I think it was the proper measure.
ADG: That’s what I thought they were going to do when I saw the article that the IOC will make an announcement in four weeks. Only time will tell if it was the right decision or not. We won’t know a day from now, a week from now, only time will tell.
GE: I don’t think Canada’s decision was too early. I know there’s other athletes that feel that and I can see their perspective on that because if you’ve already made the standard for the 2020 Olympics, you are looking forward to that and you don’t want to wait another year to prove yourself again. Athletes that are secure for this season were a little bit shocked by it and would wish that they would have been a bit more patient and made the decision more of a global decision or allowed athletes to make that decision for themselves.
In my opinion, that Canada needed to make a bold move and it needed to promote that decision. We needed to pressure the IOC to make a decision sooner because we can’t have this weighing on our mind. We’re limited in our training sessions. The athletes aren’t going to be ready to put on the show that people are expecting.
I think it was right for Canada to make the first move. It’s what everyone was thinking even after they made the decision. I got a lot of messages from German athletes, from Australian athletes, and they’re saying we’re in the same boat, we’re about to make the decision too. I was just shocked that Canada was the first one to do it.
SN: How did it make you feel when Canada was the first country to pull out of the Olympics?
AB: I get it that they want to set the example and be the trailblazer but this is a global pandemic and we should all unite together to do it. It would have been nice if it wasn’t just isolated to Canada. If we could have united and got the United States and the U.K. and all the other big countries together, if they had some type of meeting to put the pressure on the IOC. I think that would have been a much more powerful statement. Being the trailblazer and being first definitely set the example.
ADG: I don’t really know how I feel about it. I do respect the decision. I understand where they’re coming from. Obviously, we’re humans first. I mean, I just really don’t know. I don’t know if I agree. I don’t know if I disagree, but I do know I just respect the decision and I just have to keep moving forward.
GE: I was in shock that Canada’s the first country, because I remember I called another athlete right after that competes for Canada, a sprinter, we were both so upset, like I think I was crying at that time, and I was just confused on how I felt, and I remember saying, Canada’s so quiet all the time. Why are we making this big decision right now? But then I kind of reflected back and it was more of an emotional reaction right away because it made everything real that I wasn’t going to be competing at the 2020 Olympics.
Then I became proud of Canada for making a bold move and showing leadership because someone had to do it. So many other countries were threatening or requesting for postponement, but no one made a real move. I think Canada’s bold decision to withdraw their athletes actually inspired others and promoted a movement. I don’t think they were rushing. I don’t think they were doing something too prematurely. I think they made a decision so that others were forced to as well. And it worked.
The IOC was supposed to make a decision in a couple of weeks, and they were forced to make it sooner because athletes were panicking, and they were reacting to the decision that Canada made. And I think it all worked out for the better. Although I wish I found out a different way, or had some sort of knowledge prior to like a big announcement over social media, I think it was the right decision.
SN: How would you have felt if the Olympics had gone on without Canada’s participation?
AB: That would break my heart. Really, really tough to swallow.
ADG: I was talking to my friend about it, and I was like, what if we pulled out and they still ended up doing the Games without us? That definitely would be heartbreaking.
GE: I thought of that. That was my first thought, because obviously you want to think the worst when you see something that’s heartbreaking. And when I saw that Canada had withdrawn, I was like, this could be the worst possible situation that the Olympics does go on as planned. Canada’s the only country that has chosen to withdraw their athletes.
In the back of my head, I knew that that probably wasn’t going to happen, but it was thought that I had to watch the Olympics and knowing that I could have been there, but my country decided to pull all of us out, devastated. I also liked that Canada puts the health and safety of their citizens first, and I need to support that. I would have been willing to support that.
SN: What is your message for your Canadians who are going through an abnormal time right now?
AB: In times like this, I think the best thing to do is to think about the positives and there’s a lot of negatives going around a lot and negative energy but that’s not going to do any good. The more seriously we take this and the more we stand together to flatten the curve and do things to overcome, the quicker things will return to normal. There are definitely some things that suck about it, no doubt about it. I can’t sugar-coat that at all. But you can rest assured that we live in a country where our governing bodies care about our health first and above all. And that’s something that we can definitely be proud of. Cherish and celebrate, the fact that we’ve united as a country, that we’re taking this seriously and we’re doing our part to effectively try and save the world.
The sporting stuff, it definitely sucks. We’ve given up a lot. That’s a lot of money and time and blood, sweat and tears and that hurts. But there will be a day where it will still pay off. So, don’t think that everything’s gone to waste. There will be brighter days. There will be times where you could show your talent. Everything we’ve worked hard for, it will pay off. You still will reap those rewards and it just might manifest in a different way. That’s honestly what I truly believe, and I think we can do our best, do our part to get over this thing together.
ADG: Just continue to follow all of the guidelines, stay safe. Take this matter very seriously. Continue to do the right protocol, washing your hands, make sure you always have the basic necessities, take care of the old folks or people in different situations than you are is very important as well. Just to do all the right things and eventually, hopefully this will calm down and everybody will get back to the normal life.
Thank you to everyone that has supported me throughout the process and us as Team Canada. We hope that we can have a chance to be key for our country as we heal.
GE: The 2021 Olympics will be even more exciting, and we’ll be even more competitive because having this taken away from athletes that are so ready to compete is only driving them to be better. They don’t see it as a way to relax and then peak again. They see it as an entire year to improve themselves. So, I think postponing it an entire year is only going to make this Olympics even that much more special. Right now, we can have fun with working out. We can experiment a little bit, we can get healthy. We’re shifting our mindset to make 2021 really special for not only the athletes, but for everyone involved.