By Kieran Heffernan, Charlie Pinkerton, Madalyn Howitt, Martin Cleary & Dan Plouffe
These Olympics have certainly not been without their share of controversy — the main issue being whether they should even be happening. Japan declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and the majority of Japanese people polled didn’t think the games should go on.
COVID cases are rising — both in Tokyo and the Olympic Village. But the Games are persevering.
Over the last month, the Sports Pages has asked Ottawa’s athletes why it’s still important for them to compete, despite the controversy.
For sprinter Lauren Gale, the joy that competition brings to athletes, their loved ones, and fans was important.
“I think it brings a sense of normalcy back to people,” Gale said. “Even though it might look a little different with a couple more maps and different protocols. I think it’ll hopefully bring a lot of people together to be able to watch it and hopefully be back on track for no more COVID.”
Gale’s family will be cheering her on from Nova Scotia.
“It’s exciting for them because they’ve been following me through most of my track meets since I was … like eight years old,” said the Ottawa Lions track and Field Club athlete. “So it’s finally my time to show them that I could make it to the biggest stage, and just make them happy and make them proud because they’re very excited to watch.”
Cyclist Ariane Bonhomme has just been focussing on her training, and trusts that officials made the right call.
“It’s so little under my control and I trust the (Canadian Olympic Committee) and the (International Olympic Committee) to make the best call, because they know best and they work with the experts,” Bonhomme explained. “I would rather train hard and not be able to compete because they decided to cancel it than worry about it and lose focus on training.”
Similarly, the focus for rugby sevens player Pam Buisa was on training and competing, but she also had concerns about people’s consent who the Games will affect.
She gave the example of the last-chance qualifying tournament for men’s basketball, which was held in Victoria, B.C., which displaced around 50 unhoused people in the city to accommodate for the competition.
“Is there a way for us to have major games, for us to embrace for it, embrace each other, embrace differences, competitiveness and all these things that come along with it in a way that is consensual?” Buisa wondered.
Recap: Olympic women’s soccer rookie Gilles sits out Canada’s 1-1 tie with Japan
The Opening Ceremonies were indeed today, but Canada’s women’s soccer team saw action two days before the Games officially opened.
They started the tournament on July 21 against the host nation. Ottawa defender Vanessa Gilles didn’t play during the 1-1 tie against Japan. Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair scored for Canada just six minutes in, but Japan matched her goal with one of its own in the 84th minute.
Gilles is one of the less experienced players on the team, with only six international appearances with Team Canada. The 25-year-old defender will likely fill-in if either of Canada’s strong centre-backs, Kadeisha Buchanan or Shelina Zadorsky, need a rest or were injured.
Before the Games, Sports Pages reporter Madalyn Howitt spoke with Gilles about her switch to playing soccer at age 16, and how she made the most of her late start in the sport.
“I’ve always known my defensive skills are what have allowed me to push my career to the university, pro and national levels,” said Gilles, a graduate of Louis-Riel high school’s sports-study program.
After being named the American Athletics Conference’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in her sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati, Gilles’ talents on the defensive line continued to develop as she grew more comfortable with her position on the field.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in that centre-backs are seeing a lot more of the ball and are dictating [plays] more, which is something that in the past would have scared me,” said Gilles, who joined FC Capital United (now Ottawa TFC) to play club soccer locally.
As the game develops though, players should too, she explained.
“These days to be a good centre-back, you have to have the confidence in your ability to run and contribute to the game on the ball,” Gilles added.
OTTAWA ATHLETES IN ACTION ON DAY 2:
Preview: Tactics key for Mike Woods to be successful in cycling road race
It’s been 25 years since former Ottawa Lions runner Mike Woods‘ youthful Olympic dream blossomed while watching Ottawa’s Glenroy Gilbert and the Canadian men’s 4×100 m relay team win gold at the Atlanta 1996 Games.
Now, the 34-year-old runner-turned-cyclist will take his shot at glory as he leads Canada’s hopes in road cycling in Tokyo.
“We have gone all-in for Mike at the Olympics,” Kris Westwood, Cycling Canada’s high-performance director, wrote in an email to High Achievers columnist Martin Cleary. “Both of his teammates will be riding 100 per cent to support him.”
The Olympic men’s road race is traditionally a single-day ultramarathon. In his first Olympics in Rio in 2016, an injured Woods placed 55th over the hilly 237.5-kilometre course, which suited his style.
“With such a mountainous course, the strategy is pretty simple: keep Mike safe, hydrated, fed and sheltered up to the 14-kilometre-long Fuji Sanroku climb, where we can expect the first major selection to take place over the top of this climb at 140 kilometres,” Westwood added.
“Hopefully, one of Mike’s teammates will make it over in the front group and can help place him for the critical Mikuni pass climb at 200K.”
At this point, the final group should be formed and Woods can use his “massive physiological capacity,” as pro teammate Alex Cataford of Ottawa refers to it, to surge to the Fuji International Speedway finish, near the iconic Mount Fuji.
“I think the parcours (course) is challenging enough that if Mike has good legs on the day, he will be able to deliver a result,” Cataford wrote. “There is a very hard climb with about 40 kilometres to go in the race, and I expect only a select group to make it over in the front.
“So, the strategy will be to help Mike conserve his energy until that last climb and then it will be up to him to go toe-to-toe with the other contenders.”
Speaking to reporters after arriving in Tokyo, Woods called the Olympics’ environment “quite bizarre,” because it feels like any other pro race day. The faces are the same and there’s no Olympic charge to it.
“I feel like I’ve come from the Tour de France bubble to the same cycling bubble,” he said. “We’re not allowed to leave the hotel (except for training). The street signs are in Japanese, but it doesn’t feel like Japan.
“It’s sad that we’re in a tight bubble. I have no sense of what the Japanese people think of the race or what Japan feels about it. I don’t feel like I’m in Japan, but in a race bubble.”
Woods abandoned the Tour de France last Friday and arrived in Tokyo on Saturday, after a 26-hour trip, to give himself more time to prepare for the Olympic race.
Ottawa athletes also in action on Day 2 are:
Vanessa Gilles and the Canadian women’s soccer team play their second match of the group stage against Chile.
The Olympic women’s doubles tennis competition begins today, and Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski is entered alongside Sharon Fichman.