Sports

National track and field coach axed

Les Gramantik, head coach of Canada's track and field team for the past two years, has been told his contract is not going to be renewed and that he must make way for someone else.

The head coach of Canada's national track and field team has been informed his reign has come to an end.

Les Gramantik, who has held the position officially for the past two years, has been told that his contract is not going to be renewed and that he must make way for someone else.

Athletics Canada, the sport's national governing body, is expected to announce the job vacancy during its upcoming technical congress in Toronto from Nov. 22-23.

Gramantik's plight has been kept under wraps, and the coach himself was surprised to be contacted about the matter by CBC Sports.

"It is not my role to announce it, but I was kind of informed two days ago, in no uncertain terms, that my role as head coach was not going to continue," he said Friday morning.

"Athletics Canada is going to do a complete review of the organizational chart and the initiatives for the next four years. There have been discussions and there are attempts to keep me within the organization, which I am pretty grateful for."

Strong Olympic results

The Canadian track and field team performed admirably at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, led by Priscilla Lopes-Schliep's surprise bronze medal in the women's 100-metre hurdles.

Gary Reed (men's 800 m) and Dylan Armstrong (men's shot put), both of Kamloops, B.C., finished fourth in their respective events, while Jessica Zelinka, who is personally coached by Gramantik, finished fifth in the heptathlon. The men's 4x100 relay team also finished a commendable sixth.

In what has been a growing trend since Gramantik's term began, the majority of these athletes were trained in Canada rather than basing themselves in the United States.

"Of course I am disappointed," the Calgary-based Gramantik said. "Just like anything else, I enjoyed the role and I thought the two years and a few months I was there, the group we had was successful and moving in the right direction.

"Could I have done things better? Yes, of course. I learned a lot about certain things — communication and relations with personal coaches. These are areas I could have done a much better job in.

"When you are asked to move on, you always wonder what went wrong, what ... I didn't do but was supposed to do. I honestly don't want to comment any further on it. I can confirm I have been offered another position. I have no idea what the situation will be with the new head coach position. I am not privy to that. I am not being informed on that either."

Conflicts over the years

It is well known that Gramantik had conflicts with some Olympic athletes' personal coaches.

During the 2007 Pan American Games, Gramantik discovered only 45 minutes before the 4x400 m relay semifinals that 400 m silver medallist Tyler Christopher had left the athlete's village and was unavailable for the race. Furious, he took it up with Kevin Tyler, the runner's personal coach.

As far back as 2001, when he was named head coach of Canada's team for the world athletics championships in Edmonton, Gramantik was under attack. Bruny Surin, a member of the 1996 Olympic champion 4x100 m relay team, called for the coach to be fired.

Prior to the Beijing Olympics, his announcement that athletes' families and "significant others" would not have access to them during the Games proved unpopular among a few competitors.

"When somebody assumes leadership, there is conflict," Gramantik laughed on Friday. "Colin Powell says 'in leadership, you are bound to piss off some people.' I made decisions that, at that point, I felt I should. I wouldn't do anything different apart from certain issues of communication that I need to improve."

Wynn Gmitroski, personal coach to Reed, the 2007 world championship silver medallist in the 800 metres, has known Gramantik for at least 12 years. They were roommates at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"He has always given me a lot of room to do what I needed to do," Gmitroski said. "I haven't had any head-on conflict with him. I have heard some of the background conflicts, but that was in the heat of the battle when emotions fly. I don't see any hard feelings or anybody holding a grudge against him.

"Les was in a tough position. He stepped in as interim head coach and then took over. The position is not clearly defined. There are so many different tasks involved. In other countries, they focus on the top 20 athletes. Here you are evaluated on results. He was also coaching personally, and that's also tough to do when you are the national team coach as well. I don't know if that was a factor."

'Conducting a review'

When contacted by telephone Thursday, Jean Guy-Ouellette, chairman of the board for Athletics Canada, was reluctant to acknowledge that a decision had been made about Gramantik.

"We are conducting a review of all our technical staff at the moment," he said. "In a week we will be able to say what's cooking, what will be done regarding the head coach, the high-performance director and all those guys.

"There is a job description. We are evaluating [Gramantik] on the job description. That is what we are doing at the moment."

The news of Gramantik's departure came as a shock to many athletes, coaches and others who follow the sport.

Kevin Sullivan, a three-time Olympian in the men's 1,500 m and a member of Athletics Canada's board of directors, was full of praise for the job Gramantik has done.

"From however long I have known Les, I have never seen him treat anyone with anything other than respect," Sullivan, 34, said from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. "I think he has got just a tremendous amount of integrity and passion for the sport and for Canadian athletes. Everything he has done as head coach has been to help improve the state of Canadian athletics."

Sullivan said he was unaware that a decision had been made on Gramantik's future.

"I am surprised I wasn't involved in this at all," Sullivan said. "The athlete representatives on the board are brought in as part of the hiring process. I was asked to write a performance review of Les for Athletics Canada, which I have done."

Gramantik, who also coached CBC track and field commentator Michael Smith to the 1995 world championship decathlon bronze medal, will attend the technical congress in Toronto next week. At that time, he said, he will announce whether he will accept the new position he has been offered.

"On a personal basis, I do have some other options if I choose to pursue them," he said, "but I do love the sport."