Coronavirus: London world champion swimmer reacts to Canada’s withdrawal from Tokyo Olympics

Gold medalist Margaret MacNeil of Canada celebrates in the Women's 100m Butterfly Final on day two of the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships at Nambu International Aquatics Centre on July 22, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. Clive Rose/Getty Images

London, Ont. world champion swimmer Maggie MacNeil says she agrees with the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) decision to keep Canadian athletes from attending the 2020 Summer Olympics if the Games aren’t pushed back amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Games are set to begin in Tokyo, Japan, on July 24, with the Paralympics slated to follow on Aug. 25. The COC announced Sunday it wouldn’t send a team unless the Games were postponed until the summer of 2021, a move that was praised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and quickly followed by the Australian Olympic Committee.

“It’s definitely the best decision for society as a whole, and the seriousness of this is something you really have to consider and take seriously, especially among the older population,” MacNeil told Craig Needles of Global News Radio 980 CFPL on Monday.

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The 20-year-old MacNeil was expected to be among those travelling to Tokyo as part of Team Canada and was considered a medal favourite. MacNeil won a gold medal in the 100-metre butterfly at the world championships last summer in South Korea, dethroning Olympic champion Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden. With countless cancellations, however, only 57 per cent of Olympic qualification spots have been determined.

The decision of whether to postpone the Games lies with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). MacNeil said she hopes some other large countries follow Canada and Australia’s lead in pulling their athletes and calling for the Games to be delayed, forcing the IOC’s hand.

“I honestly think the best way to go forward is to postpone at least a year,” she said. “Hopefully there’ll be vaccines or it will just have died down a lot. … I think the Olympics will be something we really need after what we’ve gone through this year.”

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“It actually would work out quite well, having it in Japan next summer. That’s where the world championships are supposed to be anyway,” McNeil said, referring to the 2021 FINA World Aquatics Championships. The event is set to take place from July 16 until Aug. 1 in Fukuoka, Japan.

“It would hurt if they go along, but honestly I don’t think they will at this point,” MacNeil said of the unlikely possibility the Games could go ahead as planned. “It’s really nice to have a definitive answer on Canada’s part because the last week and a half since I’ve been home it’s just been uncertainty after uncertainty.”

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Veteran International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound of Montreal believes the 2020 Tokyo Games will be pushed back, telling the Canadian Press in a telephone interview: “You’re looking at a postponement. I think that’s out there now.”

“We’re all reading the tea leaves and so on, but the Japanese themselves are talking about postponing,” he said. “A lot of National Olympic Committees and countries are calling for a postponement.”

The IOC and Japan’s organizing committee had consistently said the Games would go ahead as planned. But Abe changed his tune Sunday, saying a postponement of the Tokyo Games would be unavoidable if the Games cannot be held in a complete way because of the coronavirus.

Thomas Bach, the organization’s president, said Sunday morning they were considering options including postponement and said a decision would be made within four weeks. Cancelling the Games entirely was not being considered, he said.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, David Shoemaker, COC’s CEO, said waiting that long for a decision would force athletes to continue to train amid the pandemic. The move to pull athletes from the Games came after conference calls Sunday among Canada’s major Olympic players.

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Shoemaker said the turning point in discussions on how to proceed came when the federal government put an emphasis on the importance of flattening the curve and social distancing.

The question, Shoemaker said, wasn’t so much whether they could send athletes, coaches, mission team members, and fans to Tokyo to compete safely in July.

“The question was whether it was fair and appropriate to ask our athletes to be training for those Olympics in July today here in Canada, and put themselves, their families and their communities at risk,” he said.

“The answer to that question was no.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Canada won’t send team to Olympics unless it’s postponed 1 year'
Coronavirus outbreak: Canada won’t send team to Olympics unless it’s postponed 1 year

As of Monday, there have been more than 1,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with 112 recoveries and 25 deaths. Globally, the number of confirmed cases stands at more than 372,000 as of Monday afternoon, with more than 16,000 deaths. Nearly 100,000 people have recovered.

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Both governing bodies for track and field and swimming in the United States have called on their Olympic officials to push for a postponement. National Olympic committees in Brazil, Slovenia and Norway are among those pushing for a postponement until the global health crisis subsides.

Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, only World Wars have cancelled Games in 1916, 1940 and 1944.

There have been three major boycotts, in 1976 in Montreal, 1980 and 1984.

— With files from Lori Ewing and Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press

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