Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field·Analysis

Canadian athletes right on track for the Tokyo Olympics

After getting shutout two years ago at the track and field world championships in London, the Canadian team rebounded in Doha, winning five medals. From the mixed zone, CBC Sports' Scott Russell had a bird's eye view to what has been a "very good world championship run."

5-medal haul at Doha worlds ranks 2nd behind the 8 won in Beijing in 2015

CBC Sports' Scott Russell interviews Canadian decathlon athlete Damian Warner from the mixed zone at the IAAF World Championships in Doha. (Scott Russell/CBC Sports)

DOHA -- The mixed zone at any world championships is a happening place.

It gives you a bird's eye view of the field of play and the principal characters of the drama. The athletes are compelled to come your way, to face the music and be interviewed.

When you reside in the mixed zone you get an indication as to who is succeeding and who's not faring quite so well. Dealing with celebration and dejection becomes your stock in trade.

Our tiny, mixed zone, cubby hole, is in the third tier which ascends from the stadium floor and the track surface. Our row includes broadcasters from Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Jamaica, Denmark, Brazil and the Czech Republic.

Our immediate next door neighbours from the Caribbean have been busy and they've been corralling the magnificent Jamaican sprinters for the last ten days. But when it comes to a steady stream of traffic, we Canadians have taken the cake on this row of the mixed zone.

Night after night, dozens of athletes in our country's colours have come our way. All of them have been willing, most are smiling, and they've all been contenders in one way or another.

This is all to say that Canadian track and field athletes have had a very good world championship run here in Qatar.

They have, as a team, bounced back from a disappointing result at the last world summit in London two years ago when they didn't win a single medal.

High five

Canadian athletes recorded five podium finishes here in Doha, and that's the best medal total ever, with the exception of Beijing in 2015, where they won eight. 

After those championships, Canadian track and field enjoyed a marvelous breakout Olympics the next summer in Rio de Janeiro, where they captured six medals. That's also the stage where Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., burst into the limelight and now he's served notice he's back in form by winning bronze and silver medals in the 100 metres and 200 metres respectively in the Middle East.

WATCH | De Grasse runs to bronze in the 100m race:

Christian Coleman of the United States wins 100m with personal best 9.76 seconds, Andre De Grasse finishes 3rd while fellow Canadian Aaron Brown places 8th. 8:37

WATCH | De Grasse runs to silver in the 200m race:

Canada's Andre De Grasse finishes 2nd in 200 metres, American Noah Lyle wins gold while Canadian Aaron Brown places 6th. 4:54
But the Canadian success story goes well beyond De Grasse. 

There is strength and competitiveness evident in every discipline of athletics. Naturally in the sprinting events Canada has long been a force to be reckoned with. But in the race walk, Evan Dunfee of Richmond, B.C., has proven to be a consistent and counted on performer.

WATCH | Evan Dunfee wins Canada's first medal at the world championships:

The Richmond, B.C., native turned it up a notch in the back half of the men's 50km race walk, capturing a bronze medal after a time of 4:05:02. 0:37

On the track, in the middle distance and distance events, Canada is no longer an also-ran, but instead, keeping pace with the leaders of the pack. In the field events there are multiple medal contenders. And in the multi-event discipline category of decathlon, Canada has not one but two bona fide threats.This is an extremely well rounded team.

WATCH | Damian Warner and Pierce LePage finish 1-2 in men's 100m decathlon:

Canada's Damian Warner and Pierce LePage sit 1st and 2nd after a strong performance in 100m. 2:44

"The culture we're trying to build is a belief in every athlete on our team that they can win," said Simon Nathan who is the High Performance Director at Athletics Canada. He's had experience as a performance team manager for UK athletics and Athletics Australia.

He came to Canada in order to help build a deep track and field program which is capable of producing victories at major international meets, like the world championships and Olympics. "We have to find the best talent wherever it is and in whichever event it is," Nathan said.

"The sport is healthy in a country when at the top level you have two or three competitive people in every event. I want a healthy atmosphere of competition and sport pressure to come to bear on our best athletes. Our stars have to be nervous the day before they compete at our national championships because someone will challenge them."

By the numbers

The Canadian numbers coming out of these word championships are encouraging.

In addition to the five medals won, 17 athletes qualified through the rounds to compete in the finals. When you include the marathon, the race walks, and the longer distance events like 10,000 metres, a total of 29 Canadian athletes were competing in medal finals.

A measuring stick of performance that many national teams use is the number of top-eight performances achieved. In this case, Canada finished with 15 top-eight results. The previous best of 13 in that regard was recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 1983; the very first IAAF World Athletics championships.

But there is something less tangible that you notice when you're in the mixed zone.

It's the attitude that the athletes project when they speak with you. Confidence or reluctance, determination or defeat, you can get a whiff of whatever it is and there's no hiding it.

'I'm not going to be a passenger'

In Canada's case, at these world championships, a dogged determination to succeed pervaded.

Listen to sprinter Aaron Brown of Toronto, who has won relay medals before but qualified for his first individual finals at world championships this time.

"I want to win a medal in an individual event and prove to everyone that I'm an elite sprinter," he said.

"I'm in it," gasped 21-year-old Marco Arop of Edmonton, who made the 800-metre final in one of the deepest fields in all of track and field.

Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., captured the first medal in a distance event at the world championships in Canadian history, a bronze in the 5,000 metres event. 

"I told myself I'm not going to be a passenger," he said jubilantly after the race.

WATCH | Moh Amed wins historic bronze medal in 5,000 metre race:

Canadian Moh Ahmed reaches the podium with a time of 13 minutes 1.11 seconds. 3:03

Shot putter Brittany Crew of Toronto made the final for the second world championships in a row and finished eighth. She also bettered her Canadian record multiple times this season.

"I'm going for a medal at the Olympics," she said with confidence afterwards.

Alysha Newman of London, Ont., who specializes in the pole vault narrowly missed the podium by finishing fifth here, achieving a 4.80 metres clearance which is a mere two centimetres lower than the national record she set while winning bronze at the Diamond League Final in Zurich.

Although disappointed with the result, Newman was far from discouraged by it.

"I want to keep pushing the bar and go down in history as one of the best pole-vaulters ever in the world," she said.

DeBues-Stafford worlds debut

But let's leave the last word to Gabriela DeBues-Stafford who capped off what might be regarded as the best middle distance season in Canadian history by finishing a close 6th in the 1,500 metres with another national record shattering run of 3.56.12. It's the eighth time the Toronto native has broken Canadian records at 1,500 metres and 5,000 metres this season alone. 

She is now considered to be, along with her training partner, Laura Muir of Great Britain, one of the powerhouses of international middle distance running.

"You don't come to the world championships to participate," DeBues-Stafford said with conviction after her marvelous run at Khalifa International Stadium. "You want to be in the conversation and it's a tremendously exciting time to be a 1500m runner in the world today."

She is definitely in the conversation as are a number of Canadian track and field stars as Tokyo 2020 approaches.

Five medals, a bunch of top eight finishes, and an attitude which says they're ready to take on the world.

That's the view from the mixed zone here in Doha.

It looks to me like Canadians are right on track with the Olympics just around the corner.

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