Sports’ varying approaches to pandemic show options for Olympics

December 27, 2021
Sports' varying approaches to pandemic show options for Olympics
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This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Sports respond to latest COVID-19 wave

Twenty-one months later, COVID-19 continues to batter sports across the world. Back in March 2020, the answer was to simply shut down. Now, the solution isn’t so obvious.

As the positive tests pile up, here’s how some leagues and events plan to move forward:

NHL 

Now that players aren’t headed to Beijing, the league has renewed flexibility to reschedule games into what was supposed to be the three-week Olympic break in February. It took advantage, starting its holiday break early and extending it by a day. Action finally resumes with a three-game slate tomorrow and some of last season’s roster rules, including taxi squads, back in place to guard against more disruptions. A Flame at the end of the tunnel: Calgary, which had seven games postponed as 33 players and staff entered virus protocol, returned to practice with a full squad today. Read more about the NHL’s latest pandemic response here.

NBA

Without the freedom of a built-in schedule break, the NBA is more hesitant to call off games. Instead, it’s allowed teams to sign replacement players for those stuck in COVID-19 protocols to ensure games are played. That’s brought some nice stories, like three-time MVP Xavier Moon and three other Canadian Elite Basketball League players signing NBA contracts in short order, or 40-year-old Joe Johnson returning to the Boston Celtics nearly 20 years after he last played for them.

But the rule also turned some games into a farce. For example, the Toronto Raptors lost by 45 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night. But was it really the Raptors? Only four regular roster players (all of whom would be fighting for playing time given a full roster) took to the court, alongside four new signees. Forward Yuta Watanabe said he met his latest teammates on the way to the arena. Nonetheless, it’ll count as an “L” in the standings.

Curling

The Canadian mixed doubles Olympic trials were scheduled to begin tomorrow in Manitoba. Instead, the bonspiel to determine Canada’s representatives in Beijing was cancelled due to positive cases among the athletes. Mixed doubles, a two-person, eight-end version of the traditional sport, made its Olympic debut in 2018 when Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris won gold.

Thanks to Lawes’ inclusion in the already Olympic-bound Jennifer Jones rink, the duo wasn’t going to compete together for a repeat, with Morris instead teaming up with fellow 2018 Olympian Rachel Homan. The pair may prove to be a good candidate for the Olympic selection that will now be jointly made by Curling Canada, Own The Podium and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Olympics

The Winter Olympics begin in less than six weeks on Feb. 4 in Beijing. And while there haven’t been any changes to protocols — which already include potential three-week quarantines and a closed-loop system to minimize outside contact — the idea of gathering athletes from around the world seems more tenuous than it did just last month. 

Besides the curling cancellation, the Canadian speed skating trials scheduled for this week were also scrapped while American Mikaela Shiffrin was the latest in a line of ski stars to test positive and will miss the upcoming World Cup. Of the three pandemic approaches above, the NBA’s appears to be the only tenable option for the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee ruled out postponement earlier in December, and there’s no such thing as flexibility when 109 medal events must be produced over 17 days. 

Tokyo 2020 was completed without much virus disruption. But if Shiffrin were to contract COVID-19 in Beijing, she’d be replaced by an alternate, as happened a couple times in Japan. The show must go on.

Read the latest on how COVID-19 is affecting sports in CBC Sports’ daily roundup.

American skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, would be replaced by an alternate if she were to have a positive test at the Beijing Olympics. (Marco Trovati/The Associated Press)

In case you missed it…

Canada enjoyed a Power-ful start to the world juniors. Owen Power, the Buffalo Sabres prospect who was picked No. 1 in the 2021 NHL draft, became the first defenceman in Canadian world junior history to score a hat trick, fueling the team to a tournament-opening win over the Czech Republic on Sunday. Canada faced a slight scare going down 3-1 in the first period, but knotted the score by intermission and cruised to victory from there. It returns to the ice on Tuesday against Austria. Read more about the first day of the world juniors here.

The Bills beat the Patriots in Foxborough to control their own playoff destiny. The NFL might be the league least affected by COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean the season is normal. Take the Buffalo Bills, who have been good for a few years now, which is still weird to hear following 20 years in the wilderness when they were constantly embarrassed by Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Belichick did it again a few weeks ago, guiding a victory in which his team only attempted three passes. But the Bills got their revenge on Sunday, thumping the Patriots in New England behind a big game from quarterback Josh Allen. Buffalo now has an 89 per cent chance of winning the AFC East, per multiple statistical projections. Read more about Week 16 in the NFL here.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you next week.

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