Pulling a pair of skates out of her locker, Keiko Marshall was rejuvenated to be back in the arena. Chuckling during the practice, her tension slipped away. Though she was wearing a mask, the figure skater’s bright eyes conveyed her excitement about being back on the ice. It had been several months since she’d been allowed to skate because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“Things are lightening up,” she said after her practice on Feb. 20, right after the new phase of the reopening plan on Feb. 17.
“I find it’s always better when I am active in terms of my mental health. Having this kind of regularly scheduled activity again is beneficial for that.”
According to the Ontario pandemic restrictions imposed early this year, college and university sports teams had to stop competing until the end of January. Sports-related COVID restrictions in Ontario were lifted on March 1. Even so, amateur athletes such as Marshall have suffered since the start of the pandemic due to the continuous suspension of multiple championships and exercises.
WATCH | How COVID-19 restrictions impacted athletes in Ontario:
Many young athletes were not allowed to practise unless they were considered elite athletes — a status that counts the number of championships that athletes have participated in over the previous year.
Not all amateur skaters share Marshall’s excitement about returning to the ice. Alistair Lam, a senior figure skater and a first-year student in kinesiology at McMaster University, lamented his situation over Zoom.
He said the restrictions inflicted mental harm on him and “made absolutely no sense.”
Some figure skating team members considered restrictions unfair
A poll conducted by Ipsos last year indicates that the pandemic is jeopardizing the future of accessible sports, which allow both people with and without disabilities to use the same facilities in Canada. This means there is a potential risk that the state of sports in Canada may be bleak.
The poll, conducted on behalf of Canadian Tire Jumpstart, a national charity mainly supported by Canadian Tire Corporation to connect kids to their communities by organizing sports, shows that nearly half (48 per cent) of Ontario providers of sports programming are concerned about the possibility of permanent closure amid COVID-19, reflecting the uncertainty of sustaining sports development for young athletes. A majority (52 per cent) of providers of sports programming across Canada say they are concerned about the permanent closure of their organizations.
Motivation is hard to maintain amid rising frustration
Some athletes, however, say the measures were necessary. Marshall, the figure skater, is a student in a public health program. From her perspective, it’s hard to make exceptions to rules in place to protect everyone’s health.
“There’s been a lot of frustration lately,” she said. “A lot of us felt unsure of how we’d be able to return to competitions. It was hard to stay motivated.”
Skate Ontario, a provincial sports organization, has been working with the government to do what they can to offer competitions when possible and to continue engagement and office training as much as they can, she added.
Both Marshall and Lam are athletes of Ontario University Athletics (OUA), a regional membership association for Canadian universities that assist in coordinating competition between their university-level athletic programs. It has 20 members including U of T and McMaster University, with more than 9,500 athletes, who were not deemed elite athletes under the restrictions.
McMaster University’s sports department in Hamilton encouraged student-athletes to “go loud” on social media on Jan. 12, using the hashtag #OUAisElite to refer to OUA.
Calls for more transparency and dialogue between sports organizations and government
Sports organizations, on the other hand, as the bridge of communication between the government and the athletes, were directly affected by the restrictions.
“We were being denied an opportunity to return to train,” said Gord Grace, president of OUA and the initiator of the “go loud” action.
All athletes from OUA have been able to access facilities to continue their training since Jan. 31. OUA has self-imposed a delay in the start of their winter session last Christmas prior to the official restrictions.
“We were just trying to become one of those organizations that were allowed to train,” he said.
Grace said there could be more transparency in terms of the decisions the provincial government made. “There could have been better dialogue on how we would not be able to participate and why some other organizations were able to participate.”
Professional sports require a return to play since they rely on ticket and television revenues. Some organizations have been able to return to training. Grace emphasized that they simply wanted the same opportunity to present their case regardless of the overburdened health-care system.
“We do need to trust the government that they’re doing the right things, but in the OUA, we have professional coaches, supervision, and many of our facilities could continue to support the government protocols safely and responsibly,” he said.
Varsity athletes should not be privileged and override public health
However, sports experts say the restrictions are necessary to prevent the virus from spreading.
“Public health restrictions override anything,” said Susan Forbes, adjunct professor of health sciences at Ontario Tech University.
Forbes said they cannot privilege one group of students as there are still a lot of others who have lost other opportunities that are more impactful for them, such as employment opportunities and economic aid to their families, which is “a huge part of their identity.”
“It’s penalizing the athletes, but it also illuminates some flaws in the sports system itself and within team structures around alternative approaches to doing things,” she said.
People should follow the evidence and best practices given by individuals who work in this field and try to develop ways to assure everyone’s safety, including athletes, Forbes said.
“Be patient. We’re all seriously in this together,” she said.
Everyone is trying to adapt to the changing rules as Ontario continues to reopen. After so many months of wearing a mask, Marshall is able to uncover her bright smile once again.
The sample of the poll on popular Winter Olympics sports consists of approximately 1,000 individuals. The precision of Ipsos online polls is calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 1,000 accurate to +/- 3.5 percentage points and of 500 accurate to +/- 5.0 percentage points. The poll on closure of sports organizations was conducted online among a sample of 1,102 providers of sports programming across Canada, between Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, 2021. It is considered accurate to within ± 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all providers of sports programming across Canada been polled.
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