A global pandemic threw a worst-case scenario on Olympic hopefuls just months before the Tokyo Summer Games last year. No one knew how to be a safe athlete. For a while, Canada’s top competitors simply stopped training. Now, as they prepare for a scaled-down Olympics, new controversy is erupting. China’s horrific treatment of Uyghurs has sparked calls to boycott the Beijing 2022 Games. For now, Team Canada is planning to compete. Tricia Smith, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Olympic rower, sat at the 1980 Moscow Games when Canada stayed at home – then won a silver medal four years later on the other side of a boycott. She spoke to Maclean’s Associate Editor Nick Taylor-Vaisey on Pandemic Frustration and Why Boycotts Don’t Work.
Q: The pandemic has had a huge impact on the ability of Canadian athletes to train and compete. How do they stay focused?
A: It was difficult. A lot of athletes struggled. We made the decision last year that we would not be able to continue training, and therefore, we would not be able to send a team if the [Tokyo] The games took place. The sports community got together immediately, after the Games were postponed, to figure out how we can train – and shared best practices. Our chief medical officer said he had never seen the sports community work so well together.
We are first and foremost humans. Athletes are like everyone else who has experienced this pandemic. But I think we worked together to make it happen. This has been a great strength of our community during this time.
Q: In some ways, is focusing on training at a high level a healthy distraction?
A: Yes, when we could figure out how they could do it. At first it was quite frustrating to find yourself stuck in a one bedroom apartment figuring out ways to stay in the best lineup so that you could compete with people who you think could train more effectively. I saw someone leaning on his bed. I think our swimmers were out of the water longer than all the other swimmers in the world. But they worked on issues of flexibility or strength.
Q: The Canadian flag is ubiquitous at most of the Olympics, but international fans will not be allowed at the Tokyo Games this summer. What does this lack of visceral support do to the athletes competing for Canada?
A: I feel for everyone because friends and family can’t go, and the athletes not having that support is really disappointing. But if the athletes had a choice, they would make that sacrifice to participate in the Games. We will definitely do whatever we can to make sure this experience is as useful as possible with the people we have there. We understand that there will be Japanese fans there, and a lot of them are huge fans of Canada. It will be a Games like we have never had before. And it will be the same for all countries.
When you are an athlete, the focus is on the playing field and having your best run or your best performance ever. Most of the reader comes from what is inside of you.
Q: You’ve been to the Olympics three times. When you were in competition, what impact did seeing the Maple Leaf have?
A: Things were different then. I remember going to a World Cup event in Europe, and we were paddling all the way to the start line. Someone said, “Go to Canada!” and I turned to my partner and I said, “Who is this?” We never had anyone in the stands. It was quite rare at the time. Maybe you could consider making a long distance phone call after the race – it’s expensive – to talk to your family. Or you would send them a postcard. Athletes can be well motivated without having a huge contingent there.
Q: Earlier this year, the House of Commons voted to urge the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Beijing 2022 Games to another city. What did you think when you saw this news?
A: We paid special attention to it. It was certainly an interesting motion. Unfortunately, you just couldn’t move the Games this late in the day. The motion showed how seriously Canadians take events in China. Like all Canadians, we are seriously concerned. If you’re not going to move them, the next thing we hear about is boycotts. We know that governments, including ours, are now taking severe action in response to the current situation in western China with the Uyghur people and the detention of the “Two Michaels”.
We are not downplaying what is happening in China when planning to participate in the Olympics. I can understand that the first reaction of many of them might be to boycott the Games next year. In our opinion, the current situation does not logically lead to this conclusion. We know that Olympic boycotts are not working. I know this from personal experience.
Q: Canada boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. What was it like for you as an athlete?
A: At the time of the 1980 boycott, I said to myself, okay, everyone has to do their part. But I noticed very quickly that only the athletes paid the price. It has further strengthened the positions of governments, but has hardly succeeded in doing anything else. Nothing has changed. Business continued as usual. When I returned to school after this summer, someone asked me how we did at the Moscow Games.
You need to understand the unique power of sport. It’s about bringing people together, not dividing them. Sport is the long game. There is nothing more powerful than the Olympics in bringing people together. It is not about government-to-government relationships, where we often have serious differences. The Olympics are about interpersonal relationships, where we find the things we have in common as human beings. It is so important, especially at this time, as the world is increasingly fractured and divided.
Q: How often do you discuss the politics of the Beijing Games with colleagues from other sports federations around the world?
A: We meet regularly with our colleagues. The view is the same as mine. Sport is unique in this regard. What else is there in the world right now that brings people together? What else is there? This is one of the reasons I continue to volunteer in sport. These connections are so critical. If we lose this, we lose something very vital and important, even for world peace. We are talking about building bridges that others can cross.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where my parents were both athletes and five kids were really active. Not everyone is so lucky, but I saw the value of sport in terms of the confidence children develop, teamwork, life skills. Internationally, I remember hearing one of the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team athletes say that playing sports made him feel like he was human. It is so powerful. I have seen how sport opens doors that otherwise would not be open to women and girls.
Q: Are Canadian athletes on the same page? Since serious human rights violations are occurring in China, these conversations cannot be easy.
A: It is absolutely not an easy conversation. And I understand why people were immediately saying, “Of course, we can’t go.” But when you think about how we’re really part of the long game and building those bridges, people say, “Yeah, that’s right.” It’s not necessarily about agreeing or disagreeing with a country where the Olympics are being held. This is an opportunity to shed light on questions that should enlighten them.
Q: Boycott calls were made in China the last time that country hosted the Summer Games in 2008. What was the positive impact of the Games?
A: You never know when you go to the Games how you affect the world. In 2008, during our last visit to Beijing, what influence do we have there? If you talk to the disability community, in the seven years leading up to the Games, China has spent heavily to make more than 14,000 facilities accessible across the country. You really don’t know what the effect will be until later.
Q: At this point, are you concerned that a boycott is a reasonable possibility?
A: We are planning to go to the Games for all of the reasons I have described.
Q: The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team hopes to compete under the Haudenosaunee flag at the 2028 Games, where lacrosse has been given provisional status. Should they be allowed to compete independently from the Canadian team?
A: I saw the team playing just before the pandemic in Surrey, BC. What a great sport. I remember my parents saying how huge lacrosse was when they were growing up here in New Westminster. The Canadian Olympic Committee supported the decision regarding the Iroquois nation’s lacrosse competition at the 2022 World Games.
The decision on the Olympics is complicated. It’s overseen by the IOC, so it’s a question of whether they are recognized by the international community. This is something that we will certainly seek to find out more about.
Q: Do you see the participation of nationals on the world stage as part of a larger conversation about reconciliation with indigenous peoples?
A: This is the crux of the matter. This is the discussion that must be had. The Olympic Games are ancient Games, resuscitated in 1896. It is a construction. At the start, no woman competed. It was created at a certain time and it is evolving.
This interview appears in the May 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly magazine printed here.