It’s a delicate dance to be at one’s peak in time for the games, and a delay can throw that into jeopardy.
For an athlete, the final months before an Olympic games are near-superhuman ordeals of discipline and self-denial. Life becomes a strict regimen of exercise, rest and recovery, with social and romantic life pushed to the fringe. Quotidian vices such as sweets, alcohol or even a few hours of Netflix become out of the question.
In an instant, for athletes around the world this life of intensive preparation all fell apart. On March 24, 122 days away from the opening ceremonies, the Tokyo Olympics were officially postponed, marking the first time since the Second World War that an Olympics would not open as planned.
“The uncertainty just kind of manifested into frustration,” said Victoria cyclist Jay Lamoureux, who has had his eye on the Tokyo Olympics virtually his entire adult life. He got word of the cancellation only weeks after his final qualifying race for the 2020 games.
“As soon as Team Canada decided to boycott the games, that’s kind of when you are like … this isn’t really going to happen,” he said, telling Capital Daily that the interim weeks have seen him lean on sports psychologists to deal with the added mental pressures of being plunged into training limbo.
Canada was the first country to openly declare it would not be sending its athletes to the 2020 games for public health reasons. A total of 234 Canadians were set to take part, including Lamoureux. In retrospect, the call was a no-brainer. A typical Olympics is a perfect storm of epidemiological risk factors — including international travel and mass gatherings — that almost inevitably would have transformed the Tokyo games into a scene of devastating mass-infection.
There are few human endeavours more ruled by the ticking clock than an athlete’s experience of the Olympics. While most professional athletes are given whole seasons in which to prove themselves, for many Olympians their one shot at glory can come down to a single day. If the road towards that day is altered in any way, it could prove the difference between victory and ignominy.
“My whole plan got basically thrown down the garbage,” Olympic rugby player Karen Paquin told CBC in April. When she got word of the cancellation, she quickly made plans to leave the Rugby Canada facilities in Langford and wait out the pandemic in her native Quebec.
Speaking to the Canadian Press in March, rower Hillary Janssens said she often told herself during Elk Lake training that “this is the last winter we have to do this before Tokyo.” As winter rains once again lash Greater Victoria, her Elk Lake penury continues.
According to a 2012 French study, the peak age for Olympic-level sprinters is 25.4 for men and 26.6 for women. This means that a 100 metre runner will typically only have the opportunity to run one 10-second Olympic race in their life in which they can be confident of performing at the absolute pinnacle of their abilities.
Compare that to an NHL player. According to hockey analyst Rob Vollman, NHL players peak at around the age of 24 or 25, giving them 164 regular season games (or up to 590,400 seconds of game play) in which they are performing at their best.
For some local athletes, however, the delay has been seized upon as an opportunity. Vancouver skier and cyclist Georgia Simmerling, who has competed in three prior Olympics, is still recovering from a horrific injury that occurred in the leadup to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games in which she suffered two broken legs and multiple torn ligaments.
“It’s given me another year to just get more strength in my left leg back and my left quad and really turn my body into kind of a machine and get it as strong as it possibly can get,” she told Capital Daily. With most gyms now at risk as vectors for infection, her Olympic training has seen her retreat to her basement with the cycling app Zwift.
Simmerling has also taken to speaking to retired athletes, who she said have helped her to feel “grateful” for where she is currently and to make the most of the opportunities because they wouldn’t last forever.
Victoria-based runner Nathen Riech scored a win at the 2019 IPC World Championships which guaranteed Canada a spot at the Tokyo Paralympics. However, to fully stamp his ticket to Tokyo he’ll still need to win at the Canadian National Championships held prior to the rescheduled Paralympics next year.
The disappointment of the 2020 cancellation has perhaps not been as acute for Riech, who suffered a severe brain injury and partial paralysis at the age of 10 when he was hit in the head by an errant golf ball.
Despite being told that he had no future in sports, Riech took up middle distance running and by 2018 was breaking world records. In 2019 he won gold medals at both the Parapan American Games and the aforementioned 2019 IPC World Championship.
“I think more than able bodied athletes, Paralympic athletes are good at adapting to the circumstances that are thrown their way,” he says. “I’ve just come with the mentality that there’s going to be a Paralympics at some point until I’m told otherwise. And I am just going to prepare the best I can.”
This article was originally written for The Capital Daily. You can read the published version here