Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field

Fired Athletics Canada head coach had 'unrealistic expectations' of athletes: Marchant

Losing sight of the fact that not all of Canada’s 65 track and field athletes were going to win a medal at the Rio Olympics was one of Peter Eriksson’s downfalls as Athletic Canada’s head coach, says marathoner Lanni Marchant.

Marathoner says Peter Eriksson's medals-only mindset hindered development

Peter Eriksson was fired Friday as head coach of Athletics Canada. Canadian track and field athletes entered a new era of excellence at the Rio Olympics in August, winning six medals, including three by sprinter Andre De Grasse. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press/File)

Olympic marathoner Lanni Marchant said Friday former Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson had unrealistic expectations of the country's track and field athletes at the Rio Olympics.

And according to Marchant, losing sight of the fact that not all 65 would win a medal was one of his downfalls. 

Eriksson, 64, was fired on Friday after three-plus years on the job following an organizational review that included an anonymous online survey and more than 120 interviews with staff, provincial branch members, athletes, coaches, sponsors and other stakeholders.

Marchant pointed to the development of a number of Canadian athletes as evidence of her view.

In Rio, Mo Ahmed finished fourth in the 5,000 metres, Melissa Bishop was fourth in the 800 and set a Canadian record, Damian Warner won bronze in the decathlon and heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton captured bronze.

It was a drastic improvement for each of them from the 2012 London Olympics, where Ahmed was 18th in the 10,000, Bishop 30th in the 800 and Warner and Eaton fifth and 11th, respectively, in their events.

"None of them had standout performances in 2012, but they got that experience and that experience carried them over four years and that's why we saw the performances we did in Rio," Marchant, one of the Olympic athletes that took part in the review, told CBC Sports on Friday.

"They are going to be athletes that will go on to win a world championship and, hopefully, future Olympics," the 32-year-old distance runner from London., Ont. said. "You have to have a bottom [tier of athletes] or the bottom's going to fall out before the next Olympics."

Eriksson declined to comment to CBC Sports about his dismissal when reached by phone Friday.

During his tenure with Athletics Canada, Eriksson drew criticism for his sometimes controversial philosophy that emphasized winning and results. In the summer, he shared his frustration with CBC Sports about the Canadian mentality of focusing on participation over winning at major competitions.

Record 8 medals at 2015 worlds

"I think the Canadian mentality is that we should always fill the team because we have spots. I don't believe in that," Eriksson said then. "The ultimate pinnacle of performance is the Olympic and the Paralympic Games, we need to fill that with people [who] are here to perform and not participate.

"You want them to … be competitive. We always talk about in the funding that we invest in you for today's performance and tomorrow's potential, not past performances. We need to up the standard constantly but not forgetting rebuilding, so the next generation's mentality will be different."

Under Eriksson, Canadian track and field athletes won a record eight medals at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, China, including gold for Derek Drouin in high jump and silver for Warner, Theisen-Eaton and Bishop.

Seventy-five Canadians met the Olympic qualifying standard for Rio, but Canada took only 65 track and field athletes to Brazil — up from 42 athletes for the 2012 London Games — and revealed its goal to win "two or three medals."

The Canadians brought home six medals, led by sprinter Andre De Grasse, who won silver in the men's 200, bronze in the 100 and ran the anchor leg with Aaron Brown, Akeem Haynes and Brendon Rodney to set a national record of 37.64 seconds bronze in the 4x100 relay.

In an email to CBC Sports, marathoner Dylan Wykes didn't credit Eriksson with having a big impact on Canada's medallists in Rio.

"The athletes and their personal coaches facilitated and developed those environments that led to their success," he wrote. "Peter may have supported those environments in some ways on the periphery."

It very much became him against the athlete. I don't think that did him, the athletes or the sport any favours.— Marathoner Dylan Wykes on the power given Peter Eriksson during his time as Athletics Canada head coach

For months, there has been growing discontent with the team's leadership.

It is Wykes' understanding that the criteria for decision-making — both team selection and nationally carding athletes — was changed during Eriksson's tenure, giving him more power than previous head coaches with Athletics Canada.

"It very much became him against the individual athlete," Wykes said. "I don't think that did him, the athletes or the sport any favours."

Reid Coolsaet, who was 23rd in the Rio marathon, also wondered if Eriksson had too much power.

"If he had a strong opinion on something, it was kind of his way," said Coolsaet, who, like Marchant, wasn't on Athletics Canada's list of 68 athletes who would receive $18,000 in financial assistance for the 2016-17 season to help cover expenses while training, living and travelling.

Marchant, who became the first Canadian to complete a 10,000-metre race and a marathon at the same Olympic Games, noticed a gradual shift in Eriksson's views as the Rio Games drew closer.

"His views aligned more and more with that medals-only mindset," she said. "I don't know if that's the way he's always been."

A year ago, Marchant was successful in having a restriction removed for Olympic qualifying after Athletics Canada told her she needed to finish in the top 15 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Her ongoing battle with Eriksson continued this past summer when Eriksson refused to give Marchant assurance about being entered in both the marathon and 10,000 in Rio, though she eventually was.

Marchant also took issue with qualifying standards for women that changed from two hours 35 minutes for the 2013 world championships to 2:29:50 for the Rio Olympics and said Eriksson would push away athletes who challenged him.

Coolsaet added the marathon is a different event than other disciplines, in terms of the recovery time an athlete requires between competitions, and hopes the next head coach will treat it as such.

"If you're a great leader you recognize your own weaknesses and surround yourself with people who have those weaknesses as strengths," Marchant said. "There were a lot of good concepts [during his tenure] but the execution fell through and it became … short-sighted."

Petitclerc 'shocked' by Eriksson firing

Prior to Eriksson's hiring in July 2013, Canada had two bronze medals in track and field at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Drouin's high-jump bronze was the lone athletics medal from London.

Before Rio, Eriksson was probably best known for guiding Chantal Petitclerc to 10 gold medals over two Paralympic Games.

Petitclerc, who was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame during the Rio Paralympic Games in September, was "shocked" to hear of Eriksson's dismissal coming off Canada's strong showing at the Rio Olympics.

"Peter is the best high-performance coach that I know," said Petitclerc, who described her close friend that walked her down the aisle at her wedding as a "tough, focused" coach. "He took me to 21 [career] medals and is the most decorated Paralympic coach in history.

"You have to give him credit for delivering results, but [Athletics Canada and the review committee] clearly had a reason [for letting him go]. It breaks my heart."

'Change in leadership style needed'

Eriksson joined Athletics Canada two months after stepping down as head coach of British Athletics. He also worked with that country's Olympic and Paralympic track teams.

A former national team speed skater in his native Sweden, Eriksson coached in Canada for nearly 20 years, earning top coach honours at the 2005 Canadian Sport Awards for guiding Petitclerc to five gold medals at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

Eriksson has also been the high-performance director for Speed Skating Canada, head coach of wheelchair racing in Canada, and head track and field coach for the U.S. Paralympic Committee.

"This decision was necessary to ensure sustainable international success," Athletics Canada CEO Rob Guy said in a statement. "It was felt that a change in leadership style was needed in the high-performance area. I would like to thank Peter for his dedication and contributions that helped Canada achieve international success."

With files from The Canadian Press & Wendy-Ann Clarke, CBC Sports

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