Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field

Gains: Canadian track athletes have a lot to learn

At the halfway point of the world track and field championships, one thing is clear: medals are becoming harder and harder to come by. This should, writes Paul Gains, be a wake-up call for Canadian athletes, coaches and officials as we approach next year's Olympics.

Brace yourselves. The London Olympics are only a year away and, if it’s medals that are the yardstick of sporting success and entertainment, we Canadians are in for a dull time next summer. Might be better to watch re-runs of Canadian Idol.

Right now, at the halfway point of the 2011 IAAF world track and field championships, one thing is clear: medals are becoming harder and harder to come by. More countries are seizing their share of the pie, and Canada has not come close to winning a medal over the first five days of the meet.

If these championships aren’t a wake-up call for Canadian athletes, coaches and officials, then they are either comatose or delusional.

Medal standings

The leading countries by total heading into Day 6:

Rank Country G S B Total
1 Russia  4 2 4 10
2 United States 4 4 1 9
3 Kenya 3 2 3 8
4 Germany 1 2 1 4
5 China  1 2 0 3
T29 Canada 0 0 0 0

The tiny island nation of Grenada, with a population only slighter larger than that of Lethbridge, Alta., claimed its first ever world championship gold medal on Tuesday when 19-year-old Kirani James won the men’s 400 metres, beating reigning Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt of the United States.

James’s 21-year-old compatriot Rondell Bartholomew also made the final, finishing sixth. If the country was able to afford to fly in two others, Grenada would have a decent shot at a medal in the 4x400m relay.

The 400 final also included the Borlee twins, Kevin and Jonathan, from Belgium, a country that has produced superb chocolates, exceptional beers and the great cyclist Eddy Merckx, but could hardly be called a sprinting powerhouse. Canadians, meanwhile, are mourning the retirement of Tyler Christopher, who won a medal in this event six years ago and knew what it took to get on the podium. There’s nobody waiting on deck to replace him.

Cuba, Brazil step up

Who would have thought that the woeful communist regime in Cuba could produce a medallist in one of the more technical events, the pole vault? But they have. Lazaro Borges cleared a world-leading height of 5.90 metres to take the silver medal on Monday.

The women’s pole vault winner, Fabiana Murer, is from Brazil. Great soccer nation, but nobody thinks of Brazil when the subject of track and field is raised.

One shot?

Canada’s best, and perhaps only, hope for a world championship medal is Dylan Armstrong. The world’s top-ranked shot putter begins his quest for his first world title on Wednesday night with the qualifying round (CBCSports.ca, 9 p.m. ET).

On the women's side, Canada has four athletes entered in the 100-metre hurdles, including No. 9-ranked Perdita Felicien and 11th-ranked Phylicia George. Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, the best in the world last year, is taking the season off as she awaits a child. Heats begin on Thursday (CBCSports.ca, 9:20 p.m. ET).

Like many vaulters, Murer started out as a gymnast before being spotted at age 16 by coach Elson De Souza and brought to his Sao Paulo training camp. De Souza figured he owed it to his athletes to learn more about coaching and went looking for Vitaliy Petrov, the coach of world record holders Sergei Bubka and Yelena Isinbayeva. He brought Petrov to Brazil many times. He took Murer to Italy each summer to train with Isinbayeva.

Maybe his persistence upset the folks at home, but it sure has paid off. As Murer told me Tuesday night, "I think [my victory is] very important for athletics. Pole vault is growing in Brazil. Some years ago nobody knew what pole vault was and now they do. Some girls in gymnastics do the pole vault now because I did gymnastics before and now they want to switch from gymnastics to pole vault."

Expect to see Brazilians on the podium again. Soon.

The traditional powerhouses like the United States, Britain and Russia are struggling. Meanwhile, Iran, Sudan and, yes, Botswana have all won medals here. Amontle Montsha won the women's 400m, upsetting the heavily favoured American Allyson Felix. Like Murer, she hopes her victory will inspire girls in her homeland to take up athletics.

Kenya continues to produce

The Kenyans have figured out how to inspire the next generation. At St. Patrick’s High School in the town of Iten, which has produced numerous world and Olympic champions, there is a parade of Olympians in front of the kids after every Olympics. Gold medallists are honoured by having their names attached to trees on the school grounds.

Stephen Cherono remembers watching his older brother, Christopher Kosgei, train with the other runners in Eldoret, Kenya. Kosgei returned from the 1999 world championships with the gold medal in the steeplechase. The impression on Cherono was clear. He went on to become a world record holder in the event under his new name, Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and won back-to-back world titles in 2003 and 2005.

Shaheen changed his name at the same time he turned his Kenyan passport in for a Qatari one. Reports said he was paid $1 million US to represent Qatar. But when I asked him if it was true, he just laughed and said, "If I had a million dollars, do you think I would still be running?"

His response reveals much about his purpose in competing. Success in running means one can escape the simple life and can help his or her family and village. Shaheen pays the school fees of his brothers and sisters and helps villagers with their needs. He does admit that he is to receive $1,000 US a month for life.

When Abubaker Kaki was visited by the national coach of his native Sudan and offered three square meals a day, a cot to sleep on every night and athletic gear, he recognized a no-brainer and immediately moved to the capital city of Khartoum, against his father’s wishes.

His coach told me Kaki is easy to coach because his mantra is "What do I do next, coach?" and on Tuesday he took the 800m silver medal behind Kenya’s David Rudisha. He has also has won two world indoor titles.

Learn from the best

The point is that there are more important things that motivate athletes than shoe contracts and agents and having the best facilities to train on. Those things all help, but there has to be a desire to succeed first.

The distance running success of Kalenjin tribesmen in Kenya has spilled over the border to Uganda. Kalenjins have traditionally migrated back and forth, and now we are seeing Ugandans making finals in distance events. The oil-rich states of Bahrain and Qatar have been recruiting Kenyans for the past decade. Canadian distance runners can expect to face as many as nine Kenyan-born runners in London, not to mention the Ethiopians and Eritreans.

Athletes who arrive at the world championships measuring their personal bests against others are in for a rude awakening. One Canadian athlete here told me he was proud that he was one of the youngest athletes in his event, even though he didn’t make the final in Daegu. Well, there are 17- and 18-year-olds in Kenya who, given the opportunity, could be finalists at the world championships, but the depth in that country is so incredible that they may never appear anywhere outside Kenya except in a road race.

British distance runner Mo Farah thought he was a professional athlete until his agent recommended he go and live with the Kenyans. He quickly learned everything they do is to make themselves better athletes. He took the 10,000m silver medal here, losing only to a Japan-based Ethiopian.

Our athletes must lay down their mobile phones, cut back their Facebook and Twitter time, train harder, learn from the best, and have blind faith in whatever training program they receive. The alternative is to take up chess.

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