Pandemic tests Canada's ability to stay a winter-sport powerhouse in Beijing in 2022

What bobsled pilot Justin Kripps wants out of the upcoming sliding season is momentum. What that looks like will be dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I feel like there's there's a couple different ways we can get it, but we have get it from somewhere," said the Olympic champion from Summerland, B.C.

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"The theme I'm trying to take, and I think a lot of people are, is being flexible and ready for anything at a moment's notice."

The pandemic is testing Canada's ability to remain a winter-sport powerhouse at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Canada has been a top-five country in every Winter Olympics medal table since 1998, and top three in Paralympic Games gold medals since 2010.

The third season in a Winter Games quadrennial is a big one.

It's a year in which athletes can qualify to compete in the Games via World Cup and world championship results.

The last world championship and final full World Cup season before a Games indicates which athletes are tracking for Olympic and Paralympic podiums, and what needs to be done to be among them.

"This is a very critical year," Freestyle Canada chief executive officer Peter Judge said.

Access to quality training and competition in the midst of travel and gathering restrictions, mandatory quarantines, delays and cancellations of international events is uncertain and complicated.

"Every single situation right now is quite complex," Canadian Olympic Committee chief sport officer Eric Myles said.

International federations in snow and ice sport are based in Europe, which is where the majority of competition has retreated to during the pandemic.

Most North American stops came off international calendars. Canada lost home-country advantage across sports such as speedskating, luge, alpine skiing, ski cross and figure skating.

Freestyle skiing, snowboarding, figure skating, speed skating and sliding sports accounted for 26 of Canada's 29 medals in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

The majority of Canada's figure skating team hasn't competed since early February.

The world championships in Montreal were cancelled in March as was this month's Skate Canada Grand Prix in Ottawa.

"It's incredibly challenging for athletes to train and to remain motivated with so many question marks," said pairs skater Kirsten Moore-Towers from St. Catharines, Ont.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's such a small part of what the world is dealing with, but for us it's been our whole lives for a long time."

Kripps, women's pilot Christine de Bruin and their crews were informed just recently they'll depart in November for the first World Cup in Latvia, following next week's training camp in Whistler, B.C.

"I'd rather have a last-minute decision made when we have more information than to shut down the whole first half of the season without having the information," Kripps said.

"I'd rather just make it work and try to get some races going."

The skeleton and luge teams are skipping the first part of the season, however and will remain in Canada until December.

All World Cup speedskating for the rest of 2020 was cancelled, so the Canadians are home until 2021.

The International Skating Union is considering European hubs or "bubbles" to complete the season in 2021.

For those travelling to compete, the questions are endless: when to go, how to retain fitness during a mandatory 14-day quarantine if they return to Canada mid-season, should they stay in Europe until the spring of 2021, what happens if they or someone on their team gets sick and will a surge in infections wipe out their seasons entirely?

"We have a race schedule. Whether those races are actually going to run or not is I guess the number one question," said Olympic cross-country skier Dahria Beatty of Whitehorse.

Athletes planning to travel to Europe must weigh how Canada's required 14-day quarantine upon return impacts fitness and competitiveness.

"My goal right now just based on the climate is to go over, race well the start of the season, allow myself to stay until March and then come home and do a 14-day quarantine," Beatty explained.

"If I had to come back mid-season to do some races in Canada to re-qualify, that 14-day quarantine really, especially in an endurance sport, is terrible.

"For the fitness, it's really hard if your only option is to be on a spin bike or something inside."

An Alberta pilot project of rapid COVID-19 testing for international travellers at Calgary's airport and at a border crossing is of particular interest to athletes.

The project, announced Thursday and starting Nov. 2, could reduce or eliminate quarantines if successful.

While Beatty trains in Canmore, Alta., in hopes of a season, other Canadians are already in Europe.

The national alpine ski team raced in the season-opening World Cup in Soelden, Austria, this past weekend.

Snowboarders and freestyle skiers got to their pre-season training camps in Saas Fee and Zermatt, Switzerland, before the Swiss declared Oct. 12 that Canadians entering that country must quarantine for 10 days.

When it comes to places for athletes to train at home, Canada has the advantage of legacy venues from the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Whistler and Vancouver and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

They are Plan B if athletes are grounded for part or all of the upcoming season.

The bobsled and skeleton teams are practising starts at Canada Olympic Park's ice house in Calgary this week before heading to Whistler.

The slopestyle course and halfpipe at COP were built post-1988 and have hosted multiple World Cup events.

Snowboard Canada and Freestyle Canada are working with WinSport to make COP a full-time training base for the national teams if needed.

"If all hell breaks loose this winter, even if we can't go anywhere and even if we can't get to events, we've got world-class training facilities," Judge said.

The federations are also pitching for COP to be an international competition "bubble" for World Cup snowboard and freestyle in March.

Paralympic biathlon champion Mark Arendz of Charlottetown says the Canmore Nordic Centre, which is another 1988 venue, offers the training he needs to stay competitive if racing is curtailed by the virus.

"If everything goes really sideways, we'd have the ability to train and focus on our training and get stronger here," Arendz said.

Calgary's '88 legacy is fraying, however.

The "fastest ice in the world" is no longer in the Olympic Oval because of a mechanical issue. The national long-track speedskating team isn't expected back on the ice there before January.

"What was happening was affecting our ability to make ice," Oval director Peter McCrory said.

"The reason why it's taking so long is we are wholly dependent on an external organization to fix the issue for us."

Also, the national short-track team's training facility in Montreal shut down because of rising COVID-19 infections in Quebec.

"It's very scary that both of our teams are off ice right now," Speed Skating Canada chief executive officer Susan Auch said. "That's a problem for sure.

"It's another disruption in an already difficult six to eight months."

The search is on for a site to house both teams, which is roughly 80 people, with the covered oval in Fort St. John, B.C., a possible option.

Calgary's sliding track at COP closed over a year ago, awaiting money for a $25-million renovation.

Sliders no longer walk across the parking lot from the ice house to the track, but must travel to Whistler's track.

Having both tracks operational in a pandemic would put Canada ahead of the game for Beijing, according to Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton's high-performance director.

"We would have been so far ahead of the rest of the world in sliding," Chris Le Bihan said. "We would have such a big competitive advantage with the two tracks."

Pandemic restrictions vary around the world, so niggling away at the back of Canadian athletes' and coaches' minds is what training and competition access their competition has.

"It's seeing a different approach or a different culture across the world where we know some places are full-steam training and even competing either among themselves or with some other countries," Myles acknowledged.

"It's time right now to focus on short-term, immediate goals and making sure (of) not getting lost too much in the long-term right now."

Kripps's mantra in a potentially chaotic season comes from his teammate Ben Coakwell.

"He was saying we have to stay ready, so we don't have to get ready," Kripps said. "You can't let yourself fall behind."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct 22, 2022.

_ With files from Lori Ewing in Toronto

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