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Josh Dueck of Canada races during the men's Super-G, sitting event at the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Whistler, on March 19, 2010.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Just two days before the start of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, Team Canada chef de mission Josh Dueck was processing the fact that his Canadian athletes would be faced with competing against rivals from Russia and Belarus, albeit under a different flag.

Less than 24 hours later, with the finishing touches hastily being applied to Beijing’s National Stadium for Friday’s opening ceremony, the International Paralympic Committee reversed course. With a number of countries, including Canada, threatening to withdraw if athletes from the two countries responsible for the continuing invasion of Ukraine were allowed to compete, the IPC had had a change of heart.

Though the sudden U-turn brought the IPC in line with recent decisions taken by sporting organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, it still shocked many, including Dueck.

“The IPC had a very strong position on the matter and I felt like that was going to stand and I think a lot of us were surprised this morning to wake up and see how many nations really forced the hand with the IPC and said, ‘No, we’re not going to stand for this,’ ” he said Thursday from Beijing.

“And so it was very impressive to see Canada take a firm stand with many of the other countries and really be challenging the International Paralympic Committee on the decision.”

For Dueck, a former Paralympic alpine skier, the situation forced his mind back to the 2014 Sochi Games, in which he won gold and silver medals in his final major competition before retiring as an athlete. Even before his first run down the Russian ski hills, however, there was talk of boycotting those Games, with Russian President Vladimir Putin having invaded Ukraine for the first time.

Dueck uses words such as “haunting” and “eerie” in recalling the similarities between the two situations, with the invasions both occurring in the small window of time between the end of the Olympic Games and the start of the Paralympics.

“I remember vividly being an athlete in the bullpen being asked that question, and I had to think long and hard about it,” he said about the possibility of a boycott. “I really, in my heart of hearts, felt that if I was to abstain from the Games, it was very unlikely that it would change Putin’s mind on the matter.”

In the end, Dueck and his fellow athletes decided that at least by taking part they could affect some change by inspiring the next generation of Canadian Paralympians. As a broadcaster at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Dueck said he met some of those, and is excited to catch up with those competitors and meet others this time around.

The 41-year-old from Kimberley, B.C., who qualified for his first Paralympics in 2010, just six years after the life-altering skiing accident that left him with a disability, seems just as excited to meet the 20 Ukrainian athletes and nine guides who will be taking part in Beijing.

“I’m really pleased that the athletes were able to arrive safely and that they’re going to be able to represent their flag and their country,” he said. “I think that’s going to bring a lot of joy and a sense of calm to the rest of the countries that are competing.”

In delivering the news that athletes from Russia and Belarus would be barred from the Paralympics on Thursday, IPC president Andrew Parsons described them as “victims of [their] governments’ actions.”

As a former top-level competitor himself, Dueck says he feels sympathy for those athletes who find themselves “caught in the middle” between the actions of their countries’ leadership and the international sporting community.

“I don’t know the athletes at all, but I watched them pack their bags today,” he said. “Their dormitory was across from ours, and it was a very sad moment to see their flags ripped down off the walls and their bags packed, and that made me sad for those individuals, because it’s very likely that they’re not supporting this campaign that Putin is putting on. So it’s tough.”

The resolution over the status of Russian and Belarusian athletes is only the latest hurdle that every competing country has had to overcome, though. As with the Olympic Winter Games last month and the Summer Olympic and Paralympics Games last year, the Beijing Paralympics will be taking place in the midst of a pandemic in addition to being under the cloud of war.

Having taken the position as chef de mission for these Games in December, 2020, Dueck knew that planning for these Games would be challenging. Ensuring that his athletes had access to facilities and making sure everyone was connected while they trained remotely were two of his biggest challenges, but they were far from the only obstacles, with some athletes from the west of Canada having also had to deal with rampant forest fires and flooding, too.

However, he has been able to lean on those who have gone before, with Dueck praising the advice given to him by the likes of Stephanie Dixon, chef de mission for last year’s Summer Paralympics, and Catriona Le May Doan, who fulfilled the same role last month in Beijing. In particular, both talked about how the absence of friends and family at these pandemic Games lent itself to a greater feeling of family from within the national team as well as in and around the athletes’ village.

On top of that, he said, the events unfolding in Ukraine have imbued these Paralympic Games with an air of global perspective, one that extends far beyond whether a medal is silver or gold.

“We try to keep that perspective in mind that we’re very fortunate,” Dueck said.

“Even if it’s not going to plan and not how we envisioned or how we hoped and if it’s more complicated than we could have ever anticipated, we’re still fortunate to say that we’re athletes, and that we’re pursuing our dream and we get to do something that we love.”

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