Olympics Summer

Canadian medal prospects slim in athletics

More than 200 nations are members of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which makes athletics the biggest global sport in the world.

More than 200 nations are members of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which makes athletics the biggest global sport in the world. Bigger than soccer. It also means that Canadian track and field athletes are competing against the best in the world and that dilutes Canada's medal chances.

Adding to the competitive nature of athletics is the fact that many athletes have changed allegiance over the past few years, which has resulted in new rules for eligibility. Kenyans have become citizens of Qatar and Bahrain. Moroccans have become citizens of Bahrain and Ethiopians have become citizens of Turkey, strengthening the distance and middle distance events and making it more difficult to make the finals.

Conceivably, our nation with all its wealth and government sponsored-programs could finish down the table from Sudan, Eritrea, Croatia and Kazakstan, countries with tiny GDPs.

Best hope for athletics medal

Two medals was Athletics Canada's goal. Two months ago that seemed reasonable. Gary Reed of Kamloops, B.C., has been rounding into form at the right time and when he beat his own Canadian record in Monaco with a time of 1:43.68 he served notice that his 2007 IAAF World Championships silver medal was no fluke. Confident, smart and tough, the 26-year-old represents our best hope for a medal in athletics in Beijing.

While he is an incredible athlete he has also chosen to be in one of the most fiercely contested events. One mistake in the early rounds could mean failure to get into the final. A mistake in the final could cost him a medal. Having said that, he is a seasoned competitor who prefers to go into a race without a preconceived plan and he is capable of running from the front or kicking in the last 150 metres.

Canadian 400-metre record holder, Tyler Christopher, is also a strong medal possibility, having won the 2008 IAAF World indoor championships with an outstanding performance. However, since he recorded 44.71 in Carson, Calif., back in May, his form has been troubling.  He hasn't beaten the 45-second mark since. Even his coach, Kevin Tyler, is at a loss to explain it.  At this point he must be wondering if he can make it into the final.

Zelinka, Armstrong remote prospects

Beyond these two athletes medal prospects are remote. Several athletes are on the cusp of making an impression but it would be foolhardy to call them medal prospects. Jessica Zelinka and Dylan Armstrong are two who are certainly capable of challenging for a top-five position but only if they deliver on the day (or days in Zelinka's case).

Zelinka of London, Ont., ranks seventh with 2,070 points through two of seven events in Beijing. She set a Canadian record in the heptathlon at the 33rd Hypo Multi Events meet in Gotzis, Austria, last year. Her total was 6343 points. If she improves to 6500 or so she will be in the hunt, especially since reigning Olympic and world champion Carolina Kluft of Sweden has decided to compete in only the long and triple jumps in Beijing.

Armstrong secured third place in Group A with a season-high heave of 20.43 m in qualifying for the final of the men's shot put. He has thrown a Canadian record in the shot put of 20.92m, tantalizingly close to the 21m barrier that would result in a top five place. Historically the best throwers don't chuck their best at the Olympics. Armstrong has been throwing over 21m in practice and he is having a great season.

Hammer thrower getting close

Then there is Jim Steacy, the hammer thrower who qualified for the final with a 76.32-metre toss in his first attempt. Consistent this year, he is on the verge of throwing 80 metres, the magical barrier in his event. He beat his Canadian record this year with a best of 79.13m. Four years from now the 24-year-old from Lethbridge, Alta., doubtless will shine in London.

Canada has two women in the 100m hurdles. One is Angela Whyte, who has had knee surgery and has shown none of the form which got her 6th place in the 2004 Olympics and a top-8 finish at the 2007 IAAF world championships in Osaka. It is unrealistic to expect much from her in Beijing.

The same cannot be said for Canadian champion Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. She has run 12.61 seconds and had a few other good races in Europe. She has also run a few 100m races to improve her speed between the hurdles. If she is at her best she might squeak into the final, when anything can happen.

For the first time since 1976 Canada has three runners in the men's 1,500m including Canadian record holder Kevin Sullivan who is competing in his third Olympics. The Brantford, Ontario native was 5th in Sydney. Does he have it in him to make the final in Beijing?

Taylor Milne of Calendar, Ontario won the Canadian Championships and looked very impressive. He has a bright future. His first Olympic experience will help for London four years hence while Nate Brannen of Cambridge, Ontario went to Europe hoping to get the required A standard and set a personal best of 3:34.65. He is one who won't be put off by the fact so many athletes in Beijing have run faster times. Its a far different scenario running tactically three races in four days.

So much depends on the luck of the draw in these events. Would it be too much to see one of the three advance all the way to the final?

When the Olympics athletics competition is over the usual inquisition will take place in Canada as it will in countries like Great Britain. A medal or two would go a long way to quell the thirst for heads.