With track and field 'unpredictable' in Tokyo, expect new faces on Olympic podium
CBC Sports analysts differ on Canada's chances to surpass 6-medal Rio haul from '16
Donovan Bailey remembers a time, not long before he burst on the Canadian track and field scene in the early 1990s, when an Olympic appearance meant success to some athletes.
"It was kind of the attitude before I got there," Bailey told CBC Sports before this year's Games in Tokyo. "These current athletes don't only expect to get to the Olympics [but] get to the finals, to the [medal] podium and the top of the podium.
"I love where the program is going and, hopefully, we hear the national anthem a few times [in Japan]."
Bailey, who won Olympic 100-metre gold in world-record time in 1996, expects the 57-member athletics team in Tokyo to top its six-medal performance from 2016 in Rio, where sprinter Andre De Grasse reached the podium three times.
Three or four medals would be an achievement, according to fellow CBC Sports track and field analyst Dave Moorcroft, while matching the Rio haul is "a massive ask.
"I think a lot of the events [in Rio] were predictable but [in Tokyo] it's the opposite," he said. "There are very few gold medal certainties from any nation, so I think this is a Games when potentially you'll get a lot of surprises. I think we'll see new faces [on the podium]."
High jumper Derek Drouin (gold), heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton (bronze) and decathlete Damian Warner (bronze) followed De Grasse to the podium in Rio. But Drouin ended his Tokyo pursuit ahead of the Canadian trials in June and Theisen-Eaton retired in 2017 at age 28.
The 31-year-old Warner returns for his third Games as one of Canada's leading medal favourites. The native of London, Ont., geared up for Tokyo with 8,995 points in winning his record sixth Hypo Meeting title on May 30 in Götzis, Austria and improving upon his Canadian mark.
WATCH | Warner claims world best, Canadian record in long jump:
"He has a real opportunity to break the world record," said CBC Sports analyst and former Canadian decathlete Mike Smith in reference to Frenchman Kevin Mayer's 9,126 mark from 2018. "What [Warner] did in Götzis was quite unfathomable after training indoors [last winter] at a hockey arena. He is in phenomenal shape."
Six-foot-seven Pierce LePage of Whitby, Ont., who was second in Götzis with 8,534 points, is making his Olympic debut in Tokyo.
WATCH | LePage excelling on world stage:
"It's a unique find in the world of athletics to have a guy that tall and fast," Smith said of the 2019 Pan Am bronze medallist. "What a 1-2 punch for Canada."
On the track, De Grasse will look to lower his 9.90-second personal best from his bronze-winning performance at the 2019 world championships. However, the Markham, Ont., sprinter has posted only one sub-10 second performance in legal wind this season across seven races, including heats.
WATCH | De Grasse runs personal best for bronze at 2019 worlds:
De Grasse has two victories, a pair of seconds and a third-place finish with a season-best time 9.99.
Bailey's take: "I'm not at all concerned what [times] Andre has run [this season]. I'm more concerned that he's injury-free and been consistent. I've noticed technical changes he's made, he's a little stronger. … I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up at the top of the podium."
WATCH | The 100 metres, explained:
De Grasse, who also earned world silver in the 200, will run the event in Tokyo and be joined by Toronto's Aaron Brown, who is coming off a 20.14 season best in Budapest, Hungary on July 6.
Brown succeeded in defending his Canadian titles in the 100 and 200 last month in Montreal and will join De Grasse in the 4x100 relay. Bailey expects Jerome Blake, Brendon Rodney, Brown and De Grasse to make the final after Canada earned Olympic bronze in 2016 before failing to qualify for the 2019 world final by 6-1000ths of a second.
Fastest North Americans of all-time
Toronto's Justyn Knight missed the Rio Olympic standard by 1.36 seconds in the 5,000 as a 19-year-old star runner at Syracuse University in New York. Now 25, he had little trouble achieving the 13:13.50 Tokyo standard in 2019 to qualify for his first Olympics, and seven weeks ago ran a 12:51.93 personal best.
Canadian record holder Moh Ahmed ran 12:50.12 in that Diamond League race in Florence, Italy, joining Knight as the fastest North Americans of all-time in the event.
Moorcroft's take: "Moh has the potential to be a medallist in either or both the 5,000 and 10,000. He's so tactically astute and gets in the right position at the right time. Justyn has made the transition to the 5,000 brilliantly. The confidence he gained running [under] 12:52 is enormous. If he can get to the [Olympic] final and rekindle the Florence mindset, he could do some damage."
Edmonton middle-distance runner Marco Arop also has a chance to medal in the 800 as a first-time Olympian, noted Moorcroft, should the six-foot-four athlete carry the momentum of a spectacular season into Tokyo. His most recent result from Monaco on July 9 was a personal best and 26-100ths of a second shy of Brandon McBride's Canadian record of 1:43.20.
WATCH | Arop inches closer to Canadian record in Monaco:
McBride, meanwhile, is coming off a 1:45.51 clocking in his first and only race since 2019 worlds after nagging hamstring, hip and pelvic injuries delayed his outdoor season debut.
Moorcroft's take: "Marco's got the raw talent, size and presence to potentially run freely without much pressure and strike for a medal. I would put him as an athlete in the medal zone. Very often in the 800, at least one of the medals is unpredictable.
"What Marco lacks in experience, Brandon has loads. He knows what it takes to get to the final. You would never choose to go into an Olympic Games with once race behind you and if he made the final, he'd be absolutely thrilled."
On the women's side, Bailey said Khamica Bingham and Crystal Emmanuel will continue challenging each other in the 100 as they have since mid-May. Emmanuel ran 11.11 to hit Olympic standard and defeat her teammate at a Continental Tour meet in Montreal on June 29 before finishing third behind second-place Bingham at the July 13 Diamond League meet in Gateshead, England.
In the 800, Canada's Melissa Bishop-Nriagu has some unfinished business following a heartbreaking run at the Rio Olympics. "It's the greatest fourth place I've ever seen," said Moorcroft, a former runner from England who competed at three Olympics in the 1970s and '80s.
She'll have experience and a great racing brain on her side. She's a warrior.— CBC Sports analyst Dave Moorcroft on Canadian middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu
Inside the final 100 metres, Bishop-Nriagu was unable to hold off Kenya's Margaret Wambui, who crossed the line in 1:56.89 to beat the Canadian by 13-100ths of a second.
WATCH | Bishop-Nriagu: 'Having children added fuel to my fire'
Bishop-Nriagu did lower her national record to 1:57.02 and has inched closer to that time this season with a best of 1:58.36 at age 32 after sitting out 2018 to have a child and cutting short her 2019 season due to injury.
Moorcroft's take: "She's going to have to get back to her 1:57s and she'll have experience and a great racing brain on her side. She's a warrior."
All Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has done since her 2016 Olympic debut is set multiple national records and become the first Canadian woman to ever break two minutes in the 800, four minutes in the 1,500 and 15 minutes in the 5,000. In Tokyo, the 25-year-old from Toronto — with a season best of 4:00.46 in the 1,500 — will attempt to run under four minutes for a third time.
Moorcroft's take: "It's a bit unfortunate she picked an event with such incredible worldwide strength. You're potentially down at 3:53 [for the Olympic gold medal]. If she can get back to running 3:56, maybe 3:55 and make the final, that would be an outstanding achievement."
Back to the field, where another Canadian duo might push for a podium finish. Brittany Crew and training partner Sarah Mitton have excelled in shot put leading into Tokyo, having reached the 18.50-metre Olympic standard in 2019 and last year, respectively, with Mitton delivering an 18.89 PB in May.
WATCH | The Olympians — Brittany Crew
Crew, who boasts a 19.28 Canadian record, threw 17.65 on July 11 in her first competition since spraining her ankle on May 20 at the Tucson Elite Classic in Arizona.
Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman entered 2021 as a serious Olympic medal contender but has been slowed by a concussion. The 27-year-old had hoped to return to the Diamond League professional circuit earlier this month in Stockholm but failed to clear a bar for the third time since May 2 at a tune-up meet in Sweden.
WATCH | Sport Explainer — pole vault:
Newman, who was 17th at her Olympic debut in 2016, has achieved a personal best of 4.82 metres and has hopes of becoming the first Canadian woman over five metres.
Smith's take: "Pole vault is all about kinesthetic awareness and agility when you're sprinting down the runway and forcing yourself upside down. Alysha's in tough and it's going to be a challenge for her to get to a level she's used to being at and it'll require a lot of mental fortitude."
WATCH | Meet Canada's Olympic track and field team:
5 international athletes to watch
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: The Jamaican sprinter is a six-time Olympic medallist looking to become the first woman to win the 100 metres at three Games. The 32-year-old, who boasts a 2021 world-leading time of 10.63 seconds, also plans to race the 200 and 4x100 relay in Tokyo.
Trayvon Bromell: Usain Bolt's retirement opens the door for a new men's 100-metre champion, and the 26-year-old American is favoured by many. Bromell, who tore his Achilles at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was sidelined most of the next three seasons, owns the world's fastest time this year of 9.77 seconds.
Sifan Hassan: The 28-year-old Ethiopian-born Dutch woman is expected to attempt a rare treble in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000. The reigning world champion over 1,500 broke the women's world record in the 10,000 in June, clocking 29:06.82, before Letesenbet Gidey lowered the time two days later.
Eliud Kipchoge: The Kenyan great and defending Olympic marathon champion is competing in his fourth Summer Games. Kipchoge, 36, is the only person to run the 42.2-kilometre distance under two hours in an unofficial race (1:59:40 in October 2019) and just the third in history to win the Olympic marathon twice.
Karsten Warholm: The Norwegian is in career-best form entering his second Olympics after covering the 400-metre hurdles in a world-record 46.70 seconds before a home crowd on July 1 at a Diamond League meet in Oslo. The consistent 25-year-old is a two-time world champion.