Is Canadian athletics really 'fine' after disappointing world championships?
Injuries, virus, sub-par performances kept Canada off podium in London
Despite failing to win a single medal at the recent IAAF world athletics championships in London, Canadian officials don't see a problem.
"It's fine. We have got the athletes — that hasn't changed," says Rob Guy, Athletics Canada CEO. "I am not a believer in luck but we were four medals down [in London] before we even started with some injuries and then that virus went around.
"But, looking forward, those athletes are still great athletes. I don't think anybody on our team is worried about how we will do moving forward. I just wish we didn't have to wait two years for the next major [world championships]."
Canada won eight medals at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, five in Moscow in 2013, in addition to the six Olympic medals from the Rio Olympics last summer. Equalling the Beijing medal haul was the target for London. But, for the first time since the 2001 championships in Edmonton, the team came home empty-handed.
Injuries to sprinter Andre De Grasse (hamstring) and high jumper Derek Drouin (Achilles) dampened medal hopes while decathlete Damian Warner was one of several Canadians struck by Norovirus (also referred to as the winter vomiting bug). All three were heavily touted as medal contenders. Expecting five medals from this trio, though, was rather ambitious, particularly since athletics has become increasingly competitive across the globe. Who, for instance, would have picked Turkey's Ramil Guliyev to win the 200-metre gold?
After winning everything in sight including Pan Am, Commonwealth, world and Olympic titles how can Drouin possibly keep himself motivated? His early season form certainly never indicated he would be competitive in London. Meanwhile, De Grasse is a fantastic sprinter and we haven't seen the best of him. It would be a mistake to expect him to carry the team, though.
"When you talk about a guy like Andre," head coach Glenroy Gilbert counters, "I certainly believe he could have won a medal in the 100 and the 200 and, just the fact that he is on the track as part of the men's relay would have changed the outcome of the result you saw in London."
Gilbert also expected some of the fourth-place finishers from Rio to get on the podium in London. The year following the Olympics, he reasoned, is usually softer in terms of competition.
"I thought we could certainly convert some of those fourth-place finishes so (20-kilometre race walker) Ben Thorne might have been that guy, Mo [Ahmed] in the 5,000 and the women's 4x400 relay," he explains. "I thought we had the right people to win a medal."
Ahmed was crushed when he finished off the podium of the 5,000 in Rio. He was no happier in London, even though he smashed the Canadian 10,000 record with a time of 27 minutes 2.35 seconds. He finished eighth and was left stunned. In the 5,000, he was sixth. He understands the margin between the podium and where he is standing is enormous, and so is left asking what he can do to bridge the chasm.
"That's the million-dollar question," Ahmed laments. "Over the next two to three years I just have to be the fittest guy, that, essentially, is what it all comes down to; putting in the work to say I am the fittest guy on the line. I thought I worked hard, I thought I was fit. But obviously I wasn't."
Ahmed must find a way to not only be amongst the top three at the bell but close in something like a 53-second last lap. That's a very tall order.
Dependent on U.S. coaching
At the moment, the Canadian team is heavily dependent upon U.S., based coaching and facilities, although there is a program in place to identify up-and-comers. However, since most of them will head south to the U.S., there is little control over their development. One insider said there doesn't seem to be a plan in place to combat the problem.
Along with Andre De Grasse, there are some bright sparks on the team. Warner is always a solid medal contender on the world stage. If pole vaulter Shawn Barber can find the form that has deserted him since winning the 2015 world gold he can get back on the podium.
Younger athletes like Sage Watson, who was sixth in the London 400 hurdles, have time on her side. Then there is 800 runner Brandon McBride, whose eighth-place finish in London illustrates he could be on the same path as Canadian-record holder Gary Reed. Two years after finishing eighth at the 2005 world championships, Reed captured the silver medal in Osaka, Japan.
After Canada claimed a single medal at the 2012 London Olympics, heads rolled at Athletics Canada. The organization recently hired Simon Nathan as performance director. It will likely fall on his shoulders to convert the organization's optimism to medals which, after all, is the measure of a successful program.
But with the majority of Canadian athletes scattered across the United States, like his predecessors, Nathan may well find keeping his fingers crossed the best practice.