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Shoemaker: Getting to Beijing is the first Olympic competition

When Canada's team of more than 200 athletes are aboard their chartered flights to Beijing, it will feel like the first major Olympic hurdle has been cleared, says David Shoemaker.

When Canada's team of more than 200 athletes are aboard their chartered flights to Beijing, it will feel like the first major Olympic hurdle has been cleared, says David Shoemaker.

The Beijing Games open in exactly one month, but the competition has already started. The challenge: getting the country's top athletes to China without testing positive for COVID-19, an ominous and invisible threat that few could have seen coming just a few weeks ago.

"I think we all will feel like the first discipline in this competition will be completed at that point," Shoemaker said.

The CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee told CBC a week ago that he was "worried" about the Games, a feeling surely shared by athletes.

The Swiss Olympic Committee asked for talks about possibly postponing the Beijing Olympics because of the pandemic, but on Wednesday, the IOC told officials worldwide, including Shoemaker, the Winter Games will go ahead as planned.

"Certainly one message was the confidence in these Games going ahead," Shoemaker said.

The other message was to encourage all participants, from athletes to coaches to officials and members of the media, to "live the Playbooks today.

"Don't wait until you get to China to live the Playbooks and to abide by those rules, but really do everything you can to take COVID-19 and the Omicron variant as seriously as you can at this moment."

The Playbooks, which were also implemented at last summer's Tokyo Olympics, are rules such as masking and physical distancing that all Games participants must follow to mitigate the spread of the virus.

"Because, as you know, one of the major challenges that has our focus is how do we get our athletes safely to Beijing without positive tests, so that they can actually board the plane and then go and compete and live out their dreams," Shoemaker said.

If an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 in the next month, they must provide three negative PCR tests and then submit that documentation to the Beijing Olympic committee (BOCOG). It's up to BOCOG to clear the athlete to travel to China.

All participants are also required to provide two negative PCR tests before boarding their flight to Beijing, within 96 and 72 hours of travel.

"We're certainly getting close to the window where, if you test positive within 14 days of travel, the rule is that you won't be able to enter China," Shoemaker said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "I believe that will remain hard and fast.

"So, the stakes are incredibly high. We never really had to focus on anything like this before. In Tokyo (last summer's Olympics), while there was COVID-19, we didn't have a variant that spread and transmitted itself so easily, and so this has really become the predominant area of focus."

One positive development, Shoemaker said, is around persistent positives. Some people continue to have viral shedding — so continue to test positive — when they're no longer infectious.

"We received positive news from the IOC and from BOCOG that there's a mechanism through the medical expert panel to consider those cases and allow them to still travel," Shoemaker said.

Canadian teams have been hit hard by COVID-19. The virus infiltrated the women's hockey team last month. They decided to scrap their final exhibition games, and instead enter a protective "bubble" ahead of flying to Beijing.

The bobsled team had 11 athletes and three coaches recently released from COVID protocols. Pairs figure skaters Vanessa James and Eric Radford contracted the virus over Christmas, and were just cleared to compete at the Canadian championships this week.

The virus forced the cancellation of the mixed doubles curling trials and the world junior hockey championship.

How fair will the playing field be in Beijing if some of the world's top athletes can't compete?

"That has our focus," Shoemaker said. "And that's why we've put such an emphasis on this period of time right now. It's really important that athletes continue to test negative for the next three weeks before they board a plane."

The COC, he said, has layered on a series of precautions such as limiting the number of passengers on the charter flights to allow for distancing. Being fully vaccinated is required of all Canadian team members, and boosters are strongly encouraged.

Shoemaker certainly hasn't had an easy run since he was appointed CEO of the COC in January of 2019. He called navigating the recent Omicron curveball "all-consuming."

He laughed halfheartedly on Thursday about returning to work from home amid Ontario's semi-lockdown. His three kids, aged nine, seven and four, were doing online schooling in the next room. His wife is also working from home.

"So, this is not what we ever expected to be doing," he said.

Why is it important, amid this latest wave of an exhaustingly long pandemic, to put Canadian athletes on the start line in China?

"These Games matter. And we saw it in Tokyo, at that time when I think our country had a real thirst for it, to feel inspired, to be united, to a certain extent to heal from COVID and the pandemic," he said. "This has sort of taken on the same meaning, that almost in this inversely proportionate way that the worse the pandemic gets, the more lockdowns and curfews there are, the more important it will be for Canadians to see Canadian Olympians achieve their best.

"I think it can inspire (Canadians), I think it can make people feel better . . . that's why we're working so hard to get 220 Canadian Olympians to China.

"The more Joannie Rochette and Alex Bilodeau moments (from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics) there are, or the equivalent of the women's soccer team (which won gold in Tokyo), the way they performed this summer, I think that can help us all feel better."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press