Considered from almost any perspective, 2020 has been a dark and tumultuous year for international, high performance, sport.
The Olympics and Paralympics were shut down for the first time since the Second World War.
The avowed purpose of the Games, which is to gather people from every walk of life and myriad geographical locations, ran counter to the need to keep the planet’s population safe and healthy.
The relevance of the spectacle itself is increasingly in question.
“It’s an uphill battle sometimes,” said Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian and rowing medallist who is a lawyer as well as the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “But I do believe in the Games and I think they’re worth fighting for.”
It’s bound to be a struggle given all that’s changed.
Corruption and doping are issues which constantly plague the movement. Fewer cities are vying to host the Games because of the enormous costs associated with the undertaking. Sustainability is a problem given the lavish infrastructure required to accommodate tens of thousands of competitors and officials not to mention millions of international visitors.
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All this for an event which may occur once in the host city’s history.
Intricate and expensive global security is something the Olympics and Paralympics are forced to deal with whereas professional sports leagues, by and large, find this much more manageable and far less costly. Add to this the need to philosophically accommodate and respect human beings from every race, religion, gender, orientation, ability and social standing with one, overriding, set of values known loosely as “Olympism.”
It is a Herculean task made even more difficult by the fact that athletes are more socially conscious than ever before, more inspired to make their views known and to use the Olympic and Paralympic platforms to voice their opinions on issues which are of vital importance to them.
The International Olympic Committee and athletes around the world are agonizing over the prospect of the playing field becoming a place of protest and demonstration. Now the task is to come up with a solution that makes sense for all and allows for peaceful competition.
Then there’s the matter of spectators. The vast congregation is at the very foundation of the spectacle. For more than 125 years the great, global gathering has come to reflect the planet’s diversity as well as the traits all human beings share.
Unlike the NHL or the NBA, the Olympics and Paralympics would find it difficult to thrive in a bubble. The Games are much more than a made-for-TV sporting event. Their mission is supposed to be about building bridges between human beings.
“The power of sport to unite is undeniable,” said Mohammed Ahmed, Canada’s top distance runner who won a bronze medal at the 2019 world athletics championships in the 5,000-metre event. “There is something special about the world coming together to demonstrate how much we all hold in common. But the Olympic movement can stand to innovate through new, youthful, and diverse voices, rooting out corruption from the top down.”
Ahmed is Muslim and came to Canada with his parents, who are Somalian refugees, when he was 11. Even though he acknowledges the failings inherent in the Olympics, he very much believes in the spirit the Games represent.
“From a personal perspective I find the thought of fulfilling a childhood dream worthwhile,” he said. “It is a goal born of innocent ambition, without any thought of how or what it takes to get there.”
Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold agrees.
She’s a two-time flyweight Pan American Games champion who was hospitalized by illness the night before her quarter-final bout at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
A weakened Bujold, who was touted as a medal contender at her first Games, rose from her sick bed to answer the bell but lost the fight and was forced to wait, as it turns out, five more years for another shot at Olympic glory when she’ll be 34 years old.
In the interim she got married and gave birth to a baby girl named Kate. This week it was announced that her sport will be gender equal at the 2024 Olympics in Paris and for the first time there will be as many women as men competing at the Games.
“This is going to provide hope. It brings positivity,” Bujold said between training sessions in Kitchener, Ont. “When I first started boxing for women wasn’t even in the Olympics. It’s exciting to see future generations of women having greater opportunity than I’ve had. We’re using sport to create equality. As an athlete you have an opportunity to have a voice in other aspects of life.”
But apart from the impression she can make as a pugilist, Bujold’s aim is to have a positive influence on her child.
“My daughter is all about singing O Canada these days,” she said with a laugh. “This will be the end of my career. I think it’s important to be all-in even though the circumstances are different than I would have liked them to be. It will send a strong message to my little girl that you can go after your dreams.”
I think we cannot underestimate the power of sport to change the way people think.– Chantal Petitclerc
Wheelchair racer and Paralympic legend Chantal Petitclerc is a member of the Canadian Senate and remains a vocal advocate not only for athletes but for all people with a disability. She has steadfastly trumpeted the value of the Games.
“I think we cannot underestimate the power of sport to change the way people think,” Petitclerc said.
Alpine skier Josh Dueck, the newly appointed Team Canada chef de mission for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, acknowledged the inspirational component of what he’s involved with but pointed to the more instinctual attraction of the event.
“These are the beautiful derivatives of the Games and the Paralympic Movement as whole,” he said. “To bring awareness to the importance of inclusivity, equality, and accessibility.
“But it’s truly the spirit of our being that comes to the surface. We’re able to dissolve the barriers to express the essence of who we are. We are there to be the athletes we were born to be.”
So much confronts the Olympics and Paralympics at the present time. And the logistics in order to make them happen in the wake of the pandemic are mind-boggling. But the prospect exists that there will be four major Games within the space of a year.
If they do indeed happen, by whatever means, many believe they could be a part of the world’s ability to heal itself.
“We are united by our humanity and you can’t help but build trust when you are connected with other people through something like the Olympics,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from, what colour, what race, what religion, or what sex you happen to be. You have a chance to inspire the world.
“That’s why we do it. The Olympics is the message. That’s what connects us. It’s the humanity.”