The 2020 Tokyo Olympics that were slated to kick off in July have been monopolizing conversation lately — mostly concerning why the International Olympics Committee was delayed in making a postponement decision, given the very obvious COVID-19 pandemic currently impacting the globe. Before the recent announcement that the Olympics will in fact be postponed due to safety concerns, many athletes began speaking out.

One of the more prominent voices through this ordeal was Hayley Wickenheiser. There’s not many people who can speak to the various intersections that are directly impacted by COVID-19 quite like Wickenheiser. As a four-time Olympic gold medalist, former professional women’s hockey player and current Assistant Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs — and medical student with the University of Calgary— Wickenheiser’s perspective is unique.

We caught up with the former Olympian-turned doctor to discuss these very intersections of sport and medicine, how she felt seeing Canada be the first one to announce it would not be sending athletes to the games, and advice for young athletes who are now faced with an uncertain future.

You were one of the biggest voices in support of the Olympics being postponed. What made you want to speak up?

Given what I was seeing in emergency rooms all over the GTA, I’ve been in the emergency rooms for the last two and a half months. I started to see COVID-19 come in early January, we were kind of watching it and sort of following it in the emerge with the doctors I was working with and the nurses, and then slowly started to see cases start to rise and come in.

Was there a shift when you realized how serious COVID-19 really is?

I started to really see anxiety build in the doctors that I was working with on how to treat these patients with not a lot of information. Do they go into the room? Do they talk on a cell phone? Just how intense it was becoming. When I saw the first patient being intubated as a [COVID-19] patient, I knew that this thing was serious, and it was coming here. That was around the same time as the IOC (International Olympics Committee) was making their statements regarding, you know, “we’re still going to Japan.”  I just could not sit by and not say anything. Given the lens that I look through, from medicine and from sport, it made no sense to me.

What were your peers in medicine saying?

I think I pulled 50 of my friends who are either ICU intensivist’s or emergency room doctors across the country and not one of them said that they felt like an Olympics could happen in July given what was going on. That’s when I knew my gut feeling was right and I had to say something. I was worried about the athlete’s health and about what the message that the IOC was sending to the world, and I didn’t want to be a part of that message.

Doesn’t the IOC have medical staff on hand to consult — Why do you think that narrative was still going on?

That’s the crazy thing about it, the IOC has at their fingertips on speed dial the best medical experts in the world from the World Health Organization to a leading [infectious disease] doctors and they are in constant contact, in daily, hourly contact through this crisis. That’s what I couldn’t understand — I think to be quite honest, there’s probably a lot of medical folks that their opinion was silenced and, probably not taken as seriously before politics and economics.

We’re briefed by the latest in medicine, but it still wasn’t good enough for me because when we were getting briefed on those updates, [the IOC] was still talking about how they were trying to figure out how to have the [Olympic games] in July with mitigating the virus as much as possible. I was still saying in my head, ‘But we can’t have the games in July, there is no way to mitigate this.’ Their reasoning and their rationale made no sense to me at all. 

How did you feel seeing Canada step in first?

It was huge. Canada, I think has led the way. I was very proud. I was on calls with Tricia Smith, the president of the Canadian Olympic committee, Rosie MacLennan, who’s the vice chair of the COC’s Athlete’s Commission, as well as current and former athletes. Everyone was in agreement. This had to happen. 

For athletes who are now missing the games, what advice do you have?

Well first of all, this is potentially going to end some careers and possibly prolong others. It’s hard to say just how long that’s going to go on for. My advice would be, take some time now, spend time with your family and friends, reset. You don’t need to stress for the next little while. Take the time to collect yourself, make sure you and your family are safe and then from there you can move ahead on a better plan. Rest easy knowing that time is on our side and that the games won’t be for another year, so there’s enough time to get back into elite training.

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