How the omicron variant has impacted sports — and what could be next

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The omicron variant is threatening sports too

It’s still too early to tell how bad the omicron variant of the coronavirus is — or even whether it’ll be especially bad at all. But the response to its discovery is creating some very real effects around the world. Countries (including Canada) are tightening travel restrictions, the stock market tanked, and everyone seems just generally worried right now.

The variant has had a swift impact on sports as well. The Winter Universiade (a kind of Olympics for student-athletes) was cancelled Monday, less than two weeks before it was set to open in Switzerland. The government there introduced quarantine measures for travellers from certain countries, making it too difficult for competition to go ahead. Canada had planned to send 102 athletes.

Meanwhile, Canada’s junior women’s field hockey team is stranded in South Africa after their World Cup was postponed. Omicron was first identified in South Africa, triggering the suspension of commercial flights in and out of the country. The Canadian team said today that it had finally secured a flight home — but not until next Wednesday. Athletes from several other countries found themselves in a similar boat after a Women’s Cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe was abandoned.

Not to minimize those three competitions — nor the struggles of the athletes, coaches and officials trying to get home — but we’ve yet to see a major sporting event lost to the omicron variant. That could soon change, though.

The Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final is the second-most prestigious annual event in the sport — behind only the world championships. Barring injury or illness, all of the world’s truly elite skaters compete in it. This year’s Final, scheduled to start next Thursday in Japan, carries even greater importance because it falls just two months before the Olympics. It will show us who are the medal favourites for Beijing. But the Final is in serious jeopardy after Japan decided yesterday to ban foreigners from entering the country for at least a month in an effort to hold off the new variant. An announcement on whether the event will happen is expected in the next few days.

This leads us to the Olympics themselves. Like with everything else, it’s too early to say how big a threat omicron is to the Beijing Winter Games in February. A Chinese government spokesman yesterday vowed they’ll go ahead “as scheduled, smoothly and successfully,” though the variant could “certainly bring some challenges.” China’s current anti-virus measures are famously strict, and the decision was made a while ago to ban foreign fans from attending the Olympics. Athletes, staff and journalists will be confined to “closed-loop” environments. They’re not technically required to be vaccinated, but anyone who isn’t must complete a three-week “hard” quarantine in a confined space like their hotel room. Several countries, including Canada and the United States, have made vaccination mandatory for their participants. Barring something like the worst-case scenario for the variant, it seems like the planning and the will are there to stage the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing this winter.

Considerably shakier are the chances of NHL players competing in the men’s hockey tournament. Fans were thrilled back in September when the league and the players’ union announced they’d struck a deal with hockey’s international governing body for the world’s best players to return to the Olympics. There was one glaring caveat, though: the NHL and the players reserved the right to cancel if COVID-19 conditions made going to Beijing “impractical or unsafe.”

That language, by design, leaves plenty of room for interpretation. And, as nervous hockey fans will tell you, the league has never really wanted to get involved in the Beijing Olympics. The players demanded it. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners acquiesced as part of the new labour deal required to revive the league after the pandemic-induced shutdown. So if the players’ desire to go to China erodes, that could be it.

There were reasons for concern even before the new variant of concern was discovered. The Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders both recently experienced outbreaks that caused the postponement of multiple games. On Monday, the NHL sent a memo to its teams ordering them to cancel their holiday parties and public appearances for the time being. Omicron wasn’t mentioned in the memo, but you have to figure it played at least some factor in the decision. It also could be giving players some pause. The possibility of getting stranded in China, however remote for sports stars of their stature, is legitimately unsettling.

Preparations were already in place for a scenario in which NHL players don’t go to Beijing. The league is ready to shift to an alternate schedule that doesn’t include an Olympic break, and Hockey Canada is arranging a shadow team of non-NHLers to step in if the big guys bail.

The key date is Jan. 10. That’s the deadline for the NHL and the players to pull out of the Olympics without incurring a financial penalty. So we’ll just — like with the variant — have to wait and see.

What’s known about the omicron variant

The World Health Organization has declared a new variant of concern called omicron, first identified in South Africa. Scientists say there are a large number of mutations in the omicron variant, which means it could be more infectious and cause more severe illness. 3:00

Quickly…

The Women’s Tennis Association suspended its tournaments in China. This move is, of course, a response to the Peng Shuai situation. The Chinese player disappeared from international view for a time after accusing a former top government official in her country of sexual assault. Her allegations were quickly removed from a Chinese social-medal site, and it appears the government has not pursued them. Peng has since been seen via video (including a chat with IOC President Thomas Bach) and appeared to be OK. But the WTA has continued to demand China provide “verifiable proof” that Peng is truly safe and free, and conduct a “full, fair and transparent” investigation into her allegations. In a statement today announcing the WTA Tour’s withdrawal from China (including Hong Kong), chairman Steve Simon said: “I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.” Read more about the move here.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League is growing. For its fourth season, in 2022, the league is adding three expansion teams — the Montreal Alliance, Scarborough (Toronto) Shooting Stars and Newfoundland Growlers — to its existing seven, based in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Ottawa, Langley, B.C., and St. Catharines, Hamilton and Guelph, Ont. With 10 franchises, the CEBL will have one more than the CFL, making it the largest Canadian pro sports league in terms of number of teams. In other ways, it’s still small — players make only 700 bucks a game — but commissioner Mike Morreale (a former CFL receiver) has shown a willingness to take risks, especially when it comes to growing the size of the league. Could this be a blueprint for establishing a women’s pro sports league in Canada? CBC Sports’ Myles Dichter explores the possibility in this story.

The Phoenix Suns are on fire. Showing their surprising run to the NBA Finals last season was no fluke, the Suns won their 17th game in a row last night. It came in a clash of the titans with the resurgent Golden State Warriors, who Phoenix is now tied with for the best record in the league at 18-3. Ageless point guard Chris Paul is once again leading the way for the Suns, averaging a league-high 10.1 assists per game. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors aren’t doing so hot. Since their 6-3 start, they’ve gone 3-10 to fall to 12th in the Eastern Conference. Last night’s defeat to Memphis ran Toronto’s losing streak to three.

Coming up on CBC Sports

Here are the sports you can live-stream on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem on Thursday:

Freestyle skiing: Watch the aerials World Cup season opener in Finland at 9:30 a.m. ET.

Figure skating: Watch various competitions in the Skate Canada Challenge starting at 11:05 a.m. ET.

Alpine skiing: Watch a World Cup men’s super-G race in Colorado at 1:45 p.m. ET

Rugby sevens: Watch men’s and women’s matches from the World Rugby Sevens Series event in Dubai starting at 11:50 p.m. ET.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.



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