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Canada's Eric Gillis, centre, runs with Spain's Carles Castillejo, left, and Japan's Takayuki Matsumiya in the men's 10,000 metre race at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. A new performance-based funding formula by Athletics Canada may leave long-distance athletes like Gillis on the outside. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Starting this year it is going to be more difficult for Canada's track and field athletes to receive funding from the country's Athlete Assistance Program thanks to some tougher standards set by Athletics Canada, the sport's governing body.

In some cases, athletes will now have to achieve performances that are superior to Olympic qualifying standards, which have caused controversy amongst athletes and coaches across the country.

Athletics Canada, which administers Sport Canada's funding, makes no apologies for this and has set a target of three medals at the 2012 Olympics in London.

"I wouldn't say we made it tougher, necessarily, it's more realistic about what it takes to do well internationally," said Scott McDonald, Athletics Canada's Director of National Team Programs. "And I think that is really what Own The Podium is doing.

"Our carding plan was not in line with what we were trying to do in terms of high performance. Without moving towards that alignment we risked losing a lot of carding from Sport Canada. We would have had to cut about half the number of athletes we were able to support."

The CEO of Own The Podium, Alex Baumann, commends the new program as a step in the right direction.

"It's not easy, particularly with a sport like athletics, which has so many disciplines," Baumann said.  "But the challenge for us is, we can't resource all those disciplines. We have to take a look at where our best medal chances are.

"I agree you don't have as big a depth of field in some sports as in athletics or swimming."

Distance programs may take biggest hit

Though he is in agreement with Own the Podium's philosophy, Dave Scott-Thomas, a 16-time CIS coach of the year at the University of Guelph, doesn't like the way Athletics Canada is going about it.

"What if we don't hit our target of three medals in 2012? What is going to happen to those people who made these policy changes?" he asked. "And what if one of the non-carded athletes does it, one for whom making the Olympics Games is easier than getting carded?  Is Own The Podium going to come in and take credit for it? 

The new program seeks to identify young athletes who are on "the pathway" to becoming top 16 in the world. World-class athletes will still receive senior cards worth $1,500 per month, but now high-school athletes may earn a developmental card worth $900 a month.

Critics say the program overlooks the many college graduates who fall between the ends of the spectrum.

"In this initial wave of carding I think we are going to lose some athletes in that age group coming out of university," said Kevin Sullivan, Canadian 1,500-metre record holder and a three-time Olympian. "The idea is to capture athletes who are on the pathway to the top 8, top 16 positions. "

Like most athletes and coaches contacted by CBCSports.ca, Sullivan is in favour of the pursuit of world-class performances but suggests there are flaws in this program. The 36-year-old also sits on Athletics Canada's Board of Directors and has heard the complaints from fellow athletes.

Among the most vocal has been Eric Gillis, a 2008 Olympian at 10,000m who became the No. 1 marathoner in Canada when he ran 2:13:52 in Houston this January.

"The U.S. is having success in the 5,000m, 10,000m, marathon and the steeple [chase]," said Gillis, a native of Antigonish, N.S., who competes with the Speed River Track Club in Guelph. "If the U.S. can do it there's no reason why Canada can't. But we need to have university runners stick with the sport and develop into their mid- to late-20s and run well after university."

McDonald says Athletics Canada undertook an extensive number crunching exercise looking at what performances were necessary to reach the top 16 in every event at the past three Olympics. They then studied each of those athletes' progression on a yearly basis. From this data, a set of standards was established.

But their research fails to take into account the fact that in the distance running events, Canadians, in particular, develop later than athletes from East Africa. Every world junior men's record from 800m up is held by an East African and in every case is vastly superior to the Canadian senior records.

New training centre approach on horizon

In addition to increasing the performance standards, Athletics Canada is moving towards a National Training Centre (NTC) system like in the United Kingdom. Athletes at these centres may hold an advantage when it comes time to carve up Sport Canada's carding money. Gregory Portnoy, personal coach to Canadian long and triple jump record holder, Tabia Charles, believes this is unfair. 

"This system almost eliminates the personal coach," Portnoy said. "The personal coach is key in track and field. Most successful administrations in countries around the world go through the personal coach. The national federation is incapable of developing athletes by itself, and therefore it should work together with the personal coaches."

Scott Saunders, personal coach to national team members Tyler Christopher, Carline Muir and Krysha Bayley likes the move towards national training centres, but sees it as premature. His group works out of the University of Alberta.

"It worked really well for speed skating during the Winter Olympics.  But are the NTCs completed?" he asked. "I know quite a lot of athletes on the national team and there is just no desire to move to a national training centre right now. But it's something they will have to give some thought to. If you are at a centre, you have a better shot at getting carded."

The Speed River Track Club is widely considered the most talented group of distance runners in the country with roughly 100 members of all ages.

Along with Gillis, the club sent 1,500m runner Taylor Milne to the Beijing Olympics. The club's success has attracted several post-collegiate athletes to Guelph. One of these is Rob Watson, the 2008 and 2009 Canadian 3,000m steeplechase champion who made his international debut at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. 

Last year, the Colorado State University graduate lowered his personal best time to 8:27.09.  His performances earned him $900 a month of carding for the first time which allowed him to eat better, reduce the number of hours he works, and, more importantly, worry less about paying rent.

He doubts he'll get that money within the new system.

"They are pretty much giving up on distances over 1,500m," Watson said. "I am 26 and knowing I must run 8:19 this year to be carded, which is four seconds faster than the Olympic 'A' qualifying standard, is to me insulting and disappointing."