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Travel restrictions amid Omicron variant force cancellation of Winter Universiade


More than 100 Canadian university athletes competing in the Winter Universiade were days away from boarding their flights to Switzerland. 

The curling teams were scheduled to travel first, later this week. The hockey teams were next.

But the impact of the new COVID-19 variant is being felt in sports, and on Monday morning, the Winter Universiade, which features the top university athletes from more than 50 countries, was cancelled less than two weeks before the Games in Lucerne were scheduled to open. 

"It's the largest multi-sport games for students in the world, second largest multi-sport organization to the Olympics, so it’s pretty devastating," said Lisette Johnson-Stapley, U Sports' chief sport officer. "My heart goes out to all the student athletes, and the coaches who have been working so hard."

Canada was to send 102 student athletes, in nine teams across seven sports, to the Universiade, which was set to open Dec. 11. The Canadian contingent, including coaches and mission staff members, numbered 144. Johnson-Stapley said every participant received the bad news via an early-morning email Monday from the Lucerne organizing committee.

"We understand the difficult decision to cancel such a prestigious and important event," Johnson-Stapley said. "The health and safety of all participants is our primary concern."

Canada's women's junior field hockey team, meanwhile, is stranded in Potchefstroom, South Africa, with no immediate flights home, after their World Cup, set to open Dec. 5, was cancelled.

Nora Struchtrup, a 19-year-old forward from Victoria, said the players first learned of the new Omicron variant over breakfast last Thursday. By the end of the day, the World Cup had been cancelled. Their coach Patrick Tshutshani gathered them in after practice to deliver the news.

"We were pretty sad," Struchtrup said. "But we very much understand the decision, so no part of us ever doubted that it was the right decision."

"Pretty devastated. I was pretty gutted," added Stefani Sajko, a 21-year-old defender from Victoria. "Obviously, we've all been working really hard towards this for a while."

The team has been in contact with Canada's sport minister, Pascale St-Onge, as well as the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria and the global field hockey federation, to help facilitate flights home.

But the new variant, which may be more transmissible, has prompted several countries including Canada to introduce travel restrictions focused on countries in southern Africa where community spread is known. The players don't know when they'll be boarding flights home, nor quarantine requirements they might face upon arrival.

The players, who arrived in Potchefstroom — about 120 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg — on Nov. 23, said they feel safe where they're staying at North-West University. They're being housed in small cottages and eat their meals together in a team "bubble." Every player is fully vaccinated; it was a team requirement to travel. 

The World University Games, meanwhile, had already been postponed almost a year after originally scheduled to held in January 2021. The decision to cancel them came after Switzerland imposed border restrictions on travellers from several countries where the new Omicron variant had been discovered. 

Athletes from those countries would have been required to quarantine in Switzerland for 10 days upon arrival. 

Organizers cited "highly dynamic developments in the pandemic and related incoming travel restrictions” for the decision, saying in a statement that "as a result of these official restrictions, the Winter Universiade 2021 cannot now take place." 

Students from more than 500 universities were scheduled to compete in what Johnson-Stapley described as a "mini-Olympics," and the only opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf for many. 

"We do have student athletes who've gone on to the Olympics like Kylie Masse, but for most, this is the only time they'll represent their country and compete against other international teams," she said. "It is a national team for university sports."

Canada was scheduled to compete in men's and women's hockey and curling, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, snowboarding and short-track speedskating. 

It would have been the first FISU Universiade since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 Summer World University Games in Chengdu, China, were postponed to 2022. The next Winter University Games are in Lake Placid, N.Y., in January of 2023. 

The Omicron variant also raises questions about the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4. 

While Canadian athletes must be fully vaccinated to compete, it's not an International Olympic Committee requirement for participation. Also, Beijing is permitting spectators who live in China to attend the sporting events after Tokyo banned all fans at the Olympics this past summer.

"I think as a human I'm concerned about it obviously and what impact it's going to have around the world," said Beijing-bound curler Brad Gushue. "But as far as the Olympics, I think the COC (Canadian Olympic Committee) is going to make sure that we as athletes are safe."

Gushue and Jennifer Jones booked their Olympic berths at the curling trials that ended Sunday in Saskatoon.

Asked whether he believes the Games are in jeopardy, Gushue said: "I certainly hope it happens to be honest. We had the unfortunate situation of winning the Brier right before the pandemic hit and we never got to go to worlds. So I don't want to see that happen to us this time. So, fingers crossed everything is going to go ahead."

Jones pointed out that athletes have become accustomed to COVID-19 safety protocols. 

"We've been through this the last little while and we feel we're taking precautions as a team to keep ourselves as safe as possible while we're travelling and before events," she said. "We're just trying to take every precaution possible and the COC is doing a phenomenal job at ensuring that our health and safety is at the top of their minds."

Catriona Le May Doan, a two-time Olympic champion in long-track speedskating and Canada's chef de mission for Beijing, said the athletes are focused on preparing to compete.

"They've been through a year of COVID, they've been through the bubbles. They know that it can work. They know that they can compete and they know that they can succeed," Le May Doan said. 

While daily cases rose to record-highs in Tokyo during the Olympics, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told The Associated Press that only around 400 cases were reported inside the Olympic "bubble."  

The Beijing Paralympics open March 4. 

— With files from Gregory Strong in Saskatoon. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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