Excluding Ontario student athletes from indoor play a ‘disservice,’ university group says

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OTTAWA — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Humber College to move everything online, Rrezart Sadiku’s final year playing in the men’s volleyball team was suddenly put on pause.

Sadiku decided to finish school a year later so that he could play a full season with the team. Now, with recent restrictions in Ontario on indoor athletic facilities that prevent student athletes from training, the remainder of Sadiku’s season is in limbo.

“It’s just frustrating,” he said.

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Sadiku is one of many student athletes who, as of Wednesday, are unable to play their sport indoors in the province.

The Ontario government announced this week new COVID-19 restrictions, which included a ban on indoor sports activities until Jan. 27, with the exception of certain professional and “elite amateur” sports leagues.

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Among the seven elite amateur groups permitted to play indoors are the Canadian Hockey League, Provincial Women’s Hockey League, and the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association.

Ontario University Athletics and the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association were excluded.

Read more: Ontario moves schools to online learning, bans indoor dining and issues new COVID capacity restrictions

Sadiku and his team have already faced significant barriers to training and practising their sport. Being a big group, he said, they rarely were approved for training indoors.

This meant many of the team members were not able to train at the level they wanted to, which led to a loss in muscle mass, he said. “A lot of us haven’t touched a ball in a long time.”

Sadiku said he was dealing with lower body injuries, which might have been prevented if they had been able to train.

The break in December was supposed to be a good time for the team to recover their bodies and “go full force into the season,” where they were about to have three matches every week starting in January, he said.

The season for university athletics was supposed to begin on Jan. 24.

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Ontario University Athletics said in a statement that their student athletes not being counted among those allowed to play in indoor facilities is a “disservice” to their abilities and efforts.

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The organization said the “elite nature” of their members has been consistently demonstrated, citing the fact that many current and former athletes competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and have gone on to launch professional careers.

Gord Grace, president and CEO of Ontario University Athletics, said it was “very disappointing” to hear of the news that it was not permitted to play indoors.

Grace said though it might look like just a three-day delay to the start of the season — from Jan. 24 to Jan. 27 — the ban on indoor practice will push games back by several weeks.

“It was our plan to train throughout the Christmas season into January, so we could start playing games immediately on Jan. 24,” he said.

Now, student athletes will only be able to resume training on Jan. 27.

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He said his organization was surprised because they had been lobbying to be permitted to return to play in summer 2021, and had later met with members of Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod’s office on the subject.

“We were told that it was just going to be a short-term thing,” said Grace. “And lo and behold, it’s here again holding us back.”

A petition created by the Canadian Student-Athlete Association to let both the OUA and OCAA play indoors has garnered more than 2,200 signatures since its creation Tuesday.

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Ryerson University’s women’s basketball team said in a statement Tuesday that the uncertainty about university athletes’ status in Ontario has worsened mental health issues and academic anxieties, and made it harder to retain talent in university sport.

The Ontario government said in a statement that it is doing everything possible to “blunt the transmission” of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

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It said these measures will help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, and the decision to put them in place was based on advice from the chief medical officer of health.

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