When Maggie Mac Neil won the 100-metre butterfly at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, her mother, father and younger sister were in the stands cheering.
“My parents have done a great job throughout my career always trying to come to as many meets as they can,” said the 20-year-old London, Ont., native who is now attending the University of Michigan. “It was definitely nice to have them there in Korea.”
When Mac Neil competes for Olympic gold this summer in Tokyo, it’s unlikely any family members will be there to watch. Concerns about COVID-19 and restrictions due to the virus are convincing friends and family of many Olympic athletes to rethink travelling to the Games.
Susan McNair, Mac Neil’s mother, said staying home won’t be easy.
“I didn’t grow up anticipating I would have a child in the Olympics,” McNair said. “I didn’t anticipate if she did make the Olympics that we would ever not be there.”
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Last March, Nathan Hirayama celebrated with his family in the stands at BC Place Stadium after Canada defeated South Africa to win the bronze medal at the HSBC Canada Sevens Rugby tournament. He had hoped to repeat the experience in Tokyo — his parents had already booked flights — but now doubts it will happen.
“Our families have been on this journey with us for so long, supporting us and travelling and staying up in the middle of the night watching,” said the 32-year-old from Richmond, B.C. “They invested in what we’re doing. I think the whole experience would be fantastic to share with our loved ones.
“I think what we’re coming to understand now is, if these Olympics do happen, they’ll look a lot different than what we all dreamed about or foreseen for so long.”
Fears over COVID-19 forced the Tokyo Olympics to be delayed one year. With the Games now scheduled to begin July 23, some of the playbooks that instruct athletes, officials and members of the media of the protocols to be followed have been released, but many questions remain.
“If you have been to the Games before, we know this experience will be different in a number of ways,” reads the playbook for international federations. “For all Games participants, there will be some conditions and constraints that will require your flexibility and understanding.”
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Organizers have said they will wait until the spring to decide if fans will be permitted to travel to Tokyo or attend any events.
Dick Pound, a Canadian member of the International Olympic Committee, believes a limited number of fans will be allowed.
“I would see some, but certainly not full stadiums,” he said.
The Canadian Olympic Committee is waiting for more information before advising families and friends about travelling to Tokyo.
“We continue in our preparation to participate at Tokyo 2020 with a focus on the health and safety of our athletes, their families, and their communities,” Eric Myles, the COC’s chief sport officer, said in a statement.
“We are planning based on the assumptions that the COVID-19 virus will still be present internationally and that Team Canada may not be vaccinated. We expect the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee to update their playbooks in April, at which point we hope to provide a more thorough update for athletes to help inform their family and friends’ decisions.”
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McNair, who is a family physician, had originally planned on her brother and his family to join them at the Olympics. Now, with tight restrictions expected on access to athletes, she questions the point of going.
“There’s a lot of factors kind of against going at this point,” she said. “Even if we didn’t have access to her there [but] we could see her swim, I think I’d be the first one on the plane.
“But there’s a lot of cons against it right now. I want the joy of watching her swim, but I also want to do what’s right, in terms of our safety and the safety of others.”
For Hirayama, whose great grandparents came to Canada from Japan, Tokyo has special significance. His parents had planned to meet up with old friends while in Japan.
He hopes conditions will change and his parents can make the trip.
“It’s hard to plan for anything that’s not a week away,” he said. “Things change so quickly. It would be awesome for them to book a last minute ticket, but I don’t think they’re planning on it now.”
In some ways, not having her parents make the journey would be a relief for Mac Neil.
“My parents are getting older,” she said. “It’s definitely better for them to just stay home safe and healthy.
“I think no matter where I am in the world, no matter where they are, I can always feel their support.”