A lesson in international sports leadership from Canada

By Grant Jarvie 

University of Edinburgh and Toronto 

At a time when international leadership in sport is called for Canada has just made a collective gesture on behalf of the whole world through sport, writes Grant Jarvie.

Over the weekend of March 22nd Team Canada alerted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would not be participating in any Olympics beginning in July. By March 23rd Dick Pound, Canadian IOC member, stated that the Olympics would be postponed by one year because of coronavirus and by March 24th  in a joint statement released by the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics had been postponed.

A decision which undoubtedly leaves questions about: cash flow to Olympic sports federations; sponsors contracts that expire as of December 31st; when will the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2012 be; what will the advertisers do in the new 17-day hole in the summer programming; tickets and hospitality and what of all the promotional spending that the 66 local Japanese, 14 global and 19 US sponsors know have to figure out?

The Olympics remain the only forum where the world gets to compete on a multi sport basis; it has stimulated government’s investment in women’s and para sports; it contributes significantly to the development of sports around the world, especially around the poorest countries that share in the redistribution of television money – US$ 509 million from 2017-2020.

It has never been postponed, with each of the stakeholders avoiding the right decision while trying to figure out the safest, least reputationally damaging solution for the IOC and Japan, but it was the Canadians who forced the change. In the words of Globe and Mail reporter Cathal Kelly Canada “didn’t just tip the first domino but they set the domino’s up” and the others followed suit.

The British and Olympic Committee (BOA) and UK Sport followed several National Olympic Committee’s requesting a postponement. Norway, Brazil and Slovenia had pressed the IOC to postpone. The United States governing bodies of swimming and track and field pressed their Olympic committee’s to press for a delay, but it was Canada who were first over the fence to say we will not be sending athletes if the games start on July 24th.

One month earlier in February 2020 it was another Canadian, and Olympian former Bruce Kidd who called for the IOC to be on the right side of history and rule out sex testing at the Tokyo Olympics. He went on “to empower unaccountable sports bodies, advised by self-appointed physicians, to exclude some women on the basis of their personal perceptions of womanhood is both wrong-headed and unfair”.

In 2014 IOC President Bach responded to Russia’s persecution of LGBTQ people during the winter Olympic and Paralympic Games by revising the Olympic Charter to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2016 when the IAAF was preparing its policy against Caster Semenya, the IOC announced that there would be no gender testing prior to the Rio Olympic Games and such an action argues Kidd should be announced for Tokyo to put the IOC on the right side of history.

It was the same Canadian who as Chair of the Commonwealth Advisory Board on Sport advocated successfully for sport to have much more of a development role in supporting grass roots sports NGO’s such as Magic Bus in India, Mathare Youth Sports Association in Kenya and Go Sisters Go in Zambia.

A role that helped to place sport at the forefront of the Commonwealth’s aspirations to help enhance human development and support agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals and attempt to make the world a better place.

Anyone who reads the early pages of the Olympic Charter is reminded that the Olympics first and foremost are a movement that respects and enables the right to sport and “places sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”

While athlete opinion is understandably mixed about the decision to postpone, the actions of the Canadians have perhaps helped to uphold some of the ideals of the Olympic charter and have delivered the correct humanitarian response to coronavirus pandemic.

Canada like Scotland is not a big player at the Olympic table. Canada like Scotland punches over its global weight in terms of the sports it claims to have invented. Scottish athletes and clubs have not been alone in leading the local and national response to the health crisis we are facing but for all of us Canadian sport has led us, once again, to a collective humanitarian intervention and the right decision.

Canada has also demonstrated that sport can actually lead on real global agenda’s and there are clear lessons here for both Scotland and the Olympic movement.

Grant Jarvie

Professor and Director with the Academy of Sport at the University of Edinburgh.

25 March 2020