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Former Olympian, head of Game Plan urges Canadian athletes to seek support

Canada's bold stance on the 2020 Tokyo Games doesn't come without a reckoning for the country's athletes.
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Canada's bold stance on the 2020 Tokyo Games doesn't come without a reckoning for the country's athletes.

The decision to hold Canadians back from competing in the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games unless they're postponed until 2021 will at best require major revisions to their lives.

At worst, goals and dreams will be dashed if those Games go ahead this summer as scheduled with a July 24 opening for the Olympic Games and Aug. 25 for the Paralympics.

The Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees want the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Tokyo Games to 2021, and thus give the world time to curb and contain COVID-19 that has infected hundreds of thousands, killed thousands and brought the sporting world to a standstill. 

The IOC has said postponement is an option on the table — cancellation isn't — and a decision will be made in four weeks.

As willing as Canada's athletes are to adopt their governing bodies' stances, they will wrestle in the days ahead with the emotional, physical and financial cost to their lives.

Thomas Hall, an Olympic medallist in canoeing in 2008, doesn't want them to do that alone.

The manager of Game Plan urges athletes to avail themselves of the organization's tools and advice.

From a financial webinar planned for Wednesday to connecting athletes with counterparts who didn't compete in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of a boycott, Hall says supports will help athletes navigate these uncertain waters.

"Most important is that athletes take care of themselves and listen to the health experts with the federal and provincial governments without a doubt," Hall told The Canadian Press on Monday.

"The next most important thing for them is to not be alone and ask for help, recognize that Game Plan is there to help and there is a network of people from Halifax to Victoria there to support them."

Established five years ago by the COC, CPC and the country's network of sport institutes, Game Plan is a high-performance wellness and transition program covering career management, networking, education, skill development and health.

Athletes tend to tap into Game Plan when they're ready to retire, but services apply to athletes with long careers ahead of them, Hall said.

"Our focus remains driving athletes to the experts in their sport who can support them, but at the same time developing resources for athletes to help them make sense of this and find their way through it, and realize they're not alone although they're socially distant," he explained.

"We are in the midst of organizing a series of calls, Zoom calls, for athletes to offer peer support that would be facilitated by a professional.

"Just a place where they can talk, express what they're feeling and make sense of it all."

Beach volleyball player Samuel Pedlow told The Canadian Press last week he anticipated taking a financial hit because he would not be able to earn prize money in tournaments that were cancelled.

"By competing, that's how I make money to help be able to support my family," Pedlow said. "Without being able to compete, I'm essentially jobless.

"I receive my Sport Canada carding cheque and we all know that's not a huge sum of money. It's not enough to live on. Finances become a little bit of an issue as well."

Said Hall: "We do know there are athletes with part-time jobs who would have lost revenue streams. One of the first things we heard more than a week ago, before yesterday's announcements, was that athletes were worried about money and their sources of income."

This week's webinar with Deloitte will walk athletes through "how to take advantage of federal government initiatives and to decode the initiatives for athletes," he explained.

Game Plan's website includes a COVID-19 resource hub with contact information and worksheets.

A 24-hour Morneau Shepell hotline gives athletes anonymous access to free counselling services and legal support.

Hall expects athletes will need time before grappling with the question of what now?

"All of a sudden, they've got time and they want to do something constructive with it," he said.

"That's where we can help, regardless of whether it's career, or education planning, extra courses you name it, we can help them with all sorts of stuff.

"It's a perfect time to do that, but they've got a lot to process before they're ready to think about that stuff."

Own The Podium is supporting athletes from a different angle.

The organization that provides technical expertise to sports federations and makes funding recommendations based on medal potential is involved in ensuring athletes and coaches remain healthy.

"The next 30 days is to work closely with the sports to ensure the health and safety of athletes, coaches and staff is the top priority," OTP CEO Anne Merklinger said.

"We have been sending updates — what we call sport medicine advisory committee updates every 48 hours — so they are hearing first-hand from chief medical officers involved in sport, guiding them as to what they should and should not be doing.

"The next 30 days will be anxious because athletes and coaches are born and bred to train and compete. They want to get on with it, but right now, they don't need to worry about that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press




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