Road To The Olympic Games

Track-field·Analysis

Canadian distance runners raised the bar at Rio Olympics

Despite competing in the deepest sport at the Olympics, many of Canada's top distance runners are no longer happy unless they win medals.

Winning mentality catching on

Eric Gillis of Antigonish, N.S., was 10th in the Olympic men's marathon, recording the best Canadian finish since 1976. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

By Mihira Lakshman, CBC Sports

Mohammed Ahmed was distraught after finishing without a medal in the men's 5,000 metres at the Rio Olympics. That's a good thing.

It's a sign that Canadian distance running has entered a new era of excellence.

Ahmed of St. Catharine's, Ont., was fourth in a race won by the immortal Mo Farah of Great Britain. It was the best-ever finish for a Canadian in the event. But he wasn't satisfied.

"The podium was right there. I could taste it," a visibly upset Ahmed said, still trying to catch his breath after a furious last lap that saw him toe to toe, elbow to elbow, challenging the greatest runners in the world.

The field in the 5,000 was so strong that not a single Kenyan qualified for the final. 

But Ahmed wasn't content with making the final or achieving a top-five finish. He could "taste" the podium in a sport that has more depth than any other at the Olympics.

Rare sightings

The recent success of Canadian distance runners is changing the mentality for the athletes.

When marathoners Eric Gillis and Reid Coolsaet were teenagers in the 1990s, spotting a Canadian singlet in the top five of an Olympic distance race was a bit like finding Waldo in a sea of striped shirts. 

There was Leah Pells, who finished an outstanding fourth in the 1,500 at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And, Kevin Sullivan's fifth place in the 1,500 at the Sydney Games was arguably one of the greatest Olympic achievements in Canadian history.

But for several years, young Canadian runners had only those two Olympic performances to cling to as a sign of what a Canadian could accomplish. 

Aside from Gary Reed's fourth place in the men's 800 in Beijing 2008, there hadn't been much in the way of Olympic medal contenders in middle distance, or distance events for an entire generation.

Flash forward to Rio 2016. Canadian middle-distance and distance running has never been so strong. And, expectations have never been so high.

Success breeds success

Melissa Bishop of Eganville, Ont., who won silver at the 2015 world championships, came into Rio expecting to win a medal. She didn't — but she set a Canadian record of one minute 57.02 seconds in the women's 800 en route to a fourth-place finish. 

In addition to runners fighting for medals, there's depth too. Five Canadians — three men and two women — were in the steeplechase; Canada had a finalist in both the men's and women's races. Until recently, Canada had very little representation at the Olympic level in the gruelling distance event, dominated by African runners.

In Sunday's marathon, Gillis of Antigonish, N.S., recorded a top 10 finish — the best result since Jerome Drayton was sixth in 1976. 

Coolsaet, who trains with Gillis at the Speed River Track and Field Club in Guelph, Ont., was 23rd. While he wasn't happy with his result, it is significant that both he and Gillis have competed at the past two Olympic marathons after a long absence for Canadians in one of the marquee events of the Games.

"It's really motivating to be a part of these brilliant finishes," Coolsaet said. "Seeing teammates finish in the top 10 consistently makes me proud to be affiliated with this crew. Hopefully this will translate into more big performances in distance running." 

The women's event also had a historic twist as Lanni Marchant of London, Ont., became the first Canadian to compete in the 10,000 and marathon at the same Olympics.

Gillis, Coolsaet, and Dylan Wykes broke a 12-year absence of Canadians in the Olympic men's marathon by qualifying in 2012. Gillis, of Antigonish, N.S., and Coolsaet of Hamilton, were back in the marathon for Rio 2016 and in the years between have consistently challenged Drayton's Canadian record of 2:10:09.

In Rio 2016, five Canadian distance athletes tied or improved on all-time Canadian best performances in track and field at the Olympics.

  • Bishop's fourth in the 800 tied Jenny Thompson's best placing from 1928.
  • Ahmed's fourth in the 5,000 improved on the previous Canadian best of eighth place from Alex Decoteau in 1912.
  • Matt Hughes's 10th place in the 3,000 steeplchase improved on Graeme Fell's 11th from 1988.
  • Genevieve Lalonde became the first Canadian women ever to make the final in the 3,000 steeplechase.
  • Evan Dunfee's fourth place in the 50 km race walk improved on Alex Oakley's best of sixth place from 1960.

Sure, the sprinters and jumpers won all of the medals for Canada's track and field team in Rio. But the distance runners are showing they can compete for the podium too. And there's a critical mass of them making waves at the highest level, changing the Canadian mentality in the sport, and raising expectations at the same time.

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