Road To The Olympic Games

Eric Gillis appeals ‘rising-star’ snub

Gillis has launched an appeal

Before the Canadian Olympic Trials Gillis thought he was a shoo-in for the spot, but when the team was announced he discovered he had not been selected

Canadian 10,000m champion Eric Gillis of Antigonish, N. S., is not going to the Beijing Olympics unless an independent appeal panel rules otherwise 

The 28-year-old was devastated to learn Sunday that the seven-member National Team Committee (NTC) had decided he was not deserving of a place on the Olympic team as a "rising star." Five other athletes, Adrienne Power (200m), Ruky Abdulai (long jump), Carline Muir (400m), Megan Metcalfe (5,000m) and Mike Mason (high jump) were put on the team under this category. 

"Five athletes were in that ‘rising star’ selection pool including Eric," says Martin Goulet, Athletics Canada’s chief high performance director, "Selection is not automatic. It is the discretion of our NTC and based on our criteria we will select athletes that will finish top 24 and top half of the field in Beijing and top eight in future Olympics. In addition they must have already shown international success." 

Gillis opened his 2008 with a strong 4th place finish at the Mt Sac Relays 10,000m on April 18, running a personal best time of 28:16.98. The Olympic B standard, the minimum requirement for Olympic selection, is 28:10.00 and on May 4, at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif., he beat that time with a clocking of 28:07.19. That represented a 35-second improvement over the personal best time he set a year ago. 

Margin of victory

As required by Athletics Canada’s criteria, Gillis won the Canadian 10,000m Championships in Toronto June 4. It may have been a mediocre time of 29:28.11, but his margin of victory was 56 seconds. 

Thinking he had done what he needed to be selected, he trained right through the Canadian Olympic Trials, running over 100 miles the week of the Windsor meet. He also agreed to share the pace-setting with Ryan McKenzie who was chasing a carding time in the 5,000m at the trials. Gillis wound up second to McKenzie in that race in a slow time of 13:55.65. 

"It was disappointing to hear I wasn’t selected," said Gillis Monday night, "it was just somewhat unexpected. The reasons behind it, I think, were arguable so we tried to come up with some good points of our own for an appeal and hopefully it will be heard. 

"I did some fairly high mileage that, in hindsight, might not have been productive to running fast in Windsor although I didn't know that I had to run fast there. There was a little bit of miscommunication. I didn’t really understand the significance of how the 5,000m in Windsor was going to affect my selection because it was one of the determining factors." 

Gets the bad news

Following the conclusion of the trials, Gillis had joined his teammate Taylor Milne, who was selected for the 1,500m, and their coach Dave Scott-Thomas at a Canadian Olympic Committee dinner and presentation for Olympic team athletes. As they left the presentation Goulet of Athletics Canada pulled Scott-Thomas aside and gave him the news. 

The unpleasant task of informing the athlete fell upon Scott-Thomas. 

"Eric and I have known each other for a long time," he recalls. "I just walked over to him and said, ‘Eric, there is no good way to tell you this. You haven’t been selected.’ I gave him a big hug. We went outside and took a little walk then he went off on his own. He was devastated." 

Shortly afterwards, Canadian head coach Les Gramantik approached Gillis. 

"He was very supportive," said Scott-Thomas. "He said to Eric, ‘Look I know you are hurting. This isn’t a personal decision but your 5000m didn’t help you.’  Eric’s a 10,000m guy. We said, ‘We are not peaking for a 5000m and nobody told us he had to run fast in Windsor.  If you are telling us that the time wasn’t fast enough, that’s subjective and somebody should have told us what time was fast enough.’" 

Scott-Thomas called Reid Coolsaet, Gillis’s friend and training partner, and they began digging up statistics which they hope will support their argument he should be added to the team as a ‘rising star."  

Worked through the night

Scott-Thomas drove home to Guelph and went immediately to a meeting with Coolsaet and Chris Moulton, both members of the Speed River Track Club.  They worked through the night, finally putting together the basis of an appeal at 4 a.m. Monday. 

The coach says they have compared a number of statistics with the performances of those athletes who were selected under the "rising star’ program. 

"He's improving at a greater rate (than the others)," says Scott-Thomas, "He's closer to the A plus standard in his primary event, his performances are in line with hundreds of data points of international class competitors and he is still below the average age of peak for his primary event. We hope that lends credibility to our case." 

Scott-Thomas says the long-term plan is for Gillis to run the marathon at the 2012 Olympics and the Beijing 10,000m was to give him experience at the biggest international sporting stage. 

Tough decisions

Dave Moorcroft, CBC colour commentator, has experience on both sides of the selection process as a three-time British Olympian and former CEO of UK Athletics. He believes the selectors had a difficult time on Gillis’s case. 

"I probably sympathize with the selectors," says Moorcroft. "However, there is a wider point of how on earth do we give our young distance runners in Canada and the UK the incentive to stay in our sport and strive to be the best they can? 

"Twenty five years ago 28.07 was OK. Now, because of the African domination, it is average, but if we are not careful soon we won't even have 28:07 runners — why would they bother? 

"It is tough on Eric but selectors have to make tough decisions. But if Olympic selection is going to follow the exceptional world distance standards we have to give our distance runners other opportunities to compete internationally and progress towards world class." 

Gillis expects the independent panel will hear his appeal in the next couple of days and hopes it is favourable. He heads off to Europe shortly where he plans to run a 5,000m race and follow that up with a 3,000m. Both races were scheduled as tune-up races for the Olympic 10,000m in Beijing.