Track and Field

Athletes 'understand' as Canada withdraws from half marathon worlds after COVID-19 spike in Poland

Canadian runners are disappointed but understand Athletics Canada's decision to withdraw from this Saturday's world half marathon championships in Poland because of rising coronavirus cases in that country.

Rachel Cliff had faith in Athletics Canada to make best decision for athletes' safety

Rachel Cliff, seen above, is among the five Canadian runners who will not race at the world half marathon championships on Saturday in Gdynia. Athletics Canada withdrew after Poland reported a single-day total of 5,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. (Luis Robayo/Getty Images)

In September, a few hours before running her first half marathon in eight months because of the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Cliff realized how much she missed racing.

"The feeling of people excited to watch you compete and excited to have you there. You really feel the momentum," said Vancouver's Cliff, who set a Comox Valley course record for women in a time trial on Sept. 13 in Courtenay, B.C., her first race since a Jan. 19 half marathon in Houston. "I missed having a focused goal the next day, putting my head down and getting [the job] done."

Cliff was excited to have the same feeling before this Saturday's world half marathon championships in Gdynia, but that was before Athletics Canada withdrew its five-member team Tuesday after Poland reported a single-day total of 5,000 COVID-19 cases.

"It's definitely sad as I was really looking forward to the opportunity to race, but I understand," said Cliff, the former Canadian record-holder in the half marathon and marathon. "I had total faith in the Athletics Canada staff and doctors to make the best decision for [the athletes'] health and safety."

Justin Kent, Ben Preisner, Philippe Parrot-Migas, Thomas Toth and Cliff were to travel to Toronto on Wednesday and board a flight for Warsaw, Poland before travelling to Gdansk, about 20 kilometres south of Gdynia. Trevor Hofbauer, who is bound for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in the marathon, withdrew from world championships recently with an injury.

Athletics Canada stated in a Tuesday news release its decision followed "an internal discussion with the "health and safety of [its] athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers in mind. We simply cannot justify putting our athletes, coaches and staff in harm's way."

U.S., Japan among countries not competing

According to Dr. Paddy McCluskey, Athletics Canada's chief medical officer, the risks Canadian runners faced in travelling to Poland included flying and transfers within airports; whether individuals would comply to the safety protocols; and having the athletes be in publicly-accessed common areas like hotel lobbies and common dining areas.

"We felt it was prudent not to expose our team to those risks," he said.

Besides Canada, the United States and Japan are among several countries to pull out of the world championships, which was cancelled on March 29 and rescheduled. Live streaming coverage at on Saturday begins at 4:50 a.m. ET, with the women's elite race scheduled for 5 a.m., followed by the men at 6:30 a.m.

The 21.1 km competition will be broadcast on CBC Television and streamed online at on Road to the Olympic Games on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, followed by an encore presentation on Sunday at 1 a.m.

Kent and BC Endurance Project head coach Richard Lee agreed another race cancellation is "par for the course" in an abbreviated 2020 season disrupted by the pandemic that forced the postponement and rescheduling of the Tokyo Olympics to next July.

"[Worlds] was a huge opportunity for many of us to showcase all the hard work we've put in," the 28-year-old Kent told CBC Sports. "It sucks but sometimes you just have to roll with it, especially in 2020."

The Surrey, B.C., native's 1:04:20 effort to meet the 1:05:46 World Half selection standard was 23 seconds shy of two-time Olympian Jon Brown's record on the fast course in Courtenay.

Marathon build for Olympics is main goal

"Training had been clicking," said Kent. "I'm just trying to process everything. I'll sit down with [Lee] and sort something out [for my next racing opportunity]."

Cliff, 32, said she would instead take part in this weekend's Athletics Canada Relay Challenge, a 42.2 km event run as part of the virtual Toronto Waterfront Marathon that was cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

Initially, Cliff's 8K split from worlds was to have counted toward the time of her Gdynia Red teammates Luc Bruchet, Ben Preisner and Catherine Watkins.

Looking ahead, Cliff, who also races the 10,000 metres, noted a marathon build for the Tokyo Olympics is the main goal, "but there are still so many moving parts with what [racing] opportunities there are [before next summer].

"Back in January when I was thinking about Tokyo, I was dreaming about the high performance side and what I could achieve and about being there. I've been dialled in for the Olympics since 2016."

Four years ago, Cliff hit the Olympic standard in the 5,000 along with two other Canadian women ahead of the Games in Rio but was left off the team by Athletics Canada, which chose not to fill all three spots allowed per country for an individual event.


Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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