Canada's strategy for a return to sport is receiving international attention.
Canadian Olympic Committee chief medical officer Mike Wilkinson is collaborating with the World Health Organization on how sport resumes in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The virus brought the international sports world to virtual halt in March over fears of contagion.
Even before the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed until 2021, Canada declared it wouldn't send a team to Japan if the games went ahead in July.
Athletes want to return to serious training as leagues and teams attempt to resume under loosening restrictions.
Using the WHO's recommendations for mass gatherings and sports, Canada developed a document of principles and risk-assessment checklists — not just for national high-performance sports organizations, but for local clubs as well.
Wilkinson, who is also the chief medical officer for Rowing Canada, served on the task force that developed Canada's strategy.
He was director of medical services at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., and is a former team physician for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
Wilkinson spoke to The Canadian Press about elements of Canada's approach.
This interview has been condensed and edited for space.
WHAT WORK ARE YOU DOING WITH THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION?
"We have adapted the initial WHO tool, the mass-gathering and the sport addendum that they have on that. We developed a Canadian-specific return-to-sport assessment tool. That has been shared with WHO who have been expanding on it and worked on it further. It's science and epidemiologically-based. There are a number of organizations they work with to look at different ways it's been handled around the world. One of them that is obviously interesting to a significant level is the Canadian process."
DID CANADA'S BOLD POSITION ON TOKYO ENHANCE THE COUNTRY'S CREDIBILITY ON THIS MATTER?
"We've said this from the very start, this is all about athlete safety and health. When I say athlete, I mean the entirety of the athlete and their support staff. It's also for the health of their families and the community. The original reason we decided not to send a team is because it was not ethical or safe any more for us to ask Canadian athletes to continue training with a view to a games in July. That has garnered some attention."
PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED AND CONFUSED ABOUT RETURNING TO SPORT IN A PANDEMIC. HOW DO CANADA'S RETURN-TO-SPORT FRAMEWORK AND RISK-ASSESSMENT CHECKLISTS HELP?
"It enables anyone planning to return to sport to go through the checklist and make sure essentially they've done everything possible to minimize the risk and if there are red flags, to say 'look, it's not safe to return to sport.' It's not a permission document. It's not to give you permission to return to sport. It's a very scientific way and a very detailed way of looking at the processes and risks to return. It is a fluid document. It has been updated as we speak as the situation changes."
WE'RE SEEING ALMOST DAILY REPORTS OF ATHLETES TESTING POSITIVE FOR THE VIRUS. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO ANYONE WHO FEELS IT ISN'T SAFE TO RETURN TO SPORT?
"I can't speak for the professional leagues because I don't know what their planning has been. I think the process we have taken is recognizing that in Canada we do not have the ability to house all our Olympic and Paralympic athletes in one centre and isolate them in a bubble. We're not doing a mass screening of asymptomatic athletes. We adopted the process that the most important way to minimize risk is the hygiene that keeps getting pushed to everybody — washing hands, cough etiquette, physical distancing — and then maintaining your training bubble or nodes. Yes, we see a lot of positive tests in professional sports and those are the ones that get the headlines. What people are not seeing is the incredible work that's gone on behind the scenes of people preparing for our national athletes to be able to train."
DO YOU THINK THERE WILL BE AN OLYMPIC AND PARALYMPIC GAMES IN TOKYO IN 2021?
"That's a long way off. If you were asking me on March 12 what was going to happen, I would have been completely wrong. We work closely with the IOC and WHO. The athletes' health is paramount. I'm confident that if the games go ahead, it will be safe for the athletes, spectators and everybody else who is there. They're not going to hold the games if it's not safe. Will we have a vaccine by then? I don't have a crystal ball. We are preparing to compete in Tokyo next year and we will carry on doing that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2020.
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Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press