On January 3, Ontario instituted a ban on indoor sport activities, along with a number of other new COVID-19 restrictions. The ban, set to expire on January 27, makes some exceptions for elite amateur groups, but excludes Ontario University Athletics (OUA), which includes all varsity sports at U of T. 

Since then, varsity athletes at U of T and beyond have spoken out about the ban, which they say fails to acknowledge the hard work of the athletes and strains athletes’ mental and physical health. 

Student athletes weigh in 

On January 7, U of T’s Varsity Board, which represents all varsity athletes at U of T, released a statement on its Instagram criticizing the recent cancellations of recreational OUA sports. “We stand with all Ontario University student-athletes during this time, and support the voices of those looking for change in Ontario sporting policy,” wrote the Board. 

The statement argues that the OUA is “the benchmark for elite amateur sport in Ontario, and should be treated as such.” 

“We are asking that the Ontario government provide transparency and clarification into the criteria used to determine why certain amateur leagues are deemed elite while the OUA is not, and reconsider the classification of Ontario University Athletics,” reads the statement. 

The OUA also put out a statement on January 4, expressing that student athletes need to be recognized for their efforts. 

In an interview with The Varsity, OUA President Gord Grace said, “I think everybody in our society has faced some challenges through COVID-19; there’s no doubt about that. Our student athletes in particular, because they spend so much time in their sport, and not being able to practice and train in their sport has created a lot of anxiety, a lot of health issues.”

Grace said that the OUA’s medical advisors have been researching the mental health effects of the pandemic on student athletes through surveys, and have found that the cancellations have impacted the students’ mental health as well. 

Grace also commented on how team dynamics change when team members are away from each other for a prolonged period of time. Sports provide support for the coaching staff and students, and when that support is gone, it can have a huge effect on those involved. 

He still hopes OUA members will be able to get back to sports soon. “If we can get back to training under the supervision of our [full-time] coaches… in a safe environment, [while] following all the protocols, at least we’d be able to provide some sort of outlet for our student athletes, so they can get ready for when the restrictions are lifted.”

Aidan Dogterom is a third year varsity athlete playing for the U of T football team. Dogterom hopes that the government will reconsider the decision to close indoor sports facilities so athletes can get back to training.

“It’s been pretty tough without all the indoor facilities,” Dogterom wrote in an email to The Varsity. “Both physically and mentally, I know my teammates and I are struggling and worrying about the upcoming season. It’s not easy taking a break from a sport for so long and then having to go back and train your body at such a high intensity level.” 

The government has not yet released any further statements on potential solutions to the frustrations expressed by Ontario postsecondary schools’ varsity sports community. 

Response from the university  

In an email to The Varsity, a spokesperson for the university wrote that “Our Varsity Blues student-athletes, coaches, and staff are a resilient group.” The university is working on a number of remote training opportunities for sports teams on campus and are working with the OUA and U SPORTS, a national university sporting organization, on returning to in-person training when public health and university guidance allows. 

The spokesperson suggested that students do some sort of physical activity everyday, whether that means an online workout or a walk outside in the fresh air. U of T also offers virtual fitness programs, such as Virtual Fitness Studio and MoveU Anywhere workouts. “We look forward to re-opening our facilities for sport and recreation activities as soon as public health guidelines permit us to,” they wrote.