National team has depth in many different men’s, women’s events
By John MacKinnon, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - In the faster, higher, stronger world of the Olympic Games, athletics, as most of the world calls track and field, is the foundational sport.
Nothing is more basic or universal than running, jumping and throwing.
My connection to track and field was locked in back in 1964 at the Canadian Olympic trials, where the stars were the 100- and 200-metre sprinter Harry Jerome, 800m runner Bill Crothers and distance specialist Bruce Kidd.
At the Tokyo Olympics that year, Jerome won bronze in the 100 metres won by Bullet Bob Hayes. Jerome also was fourth in the 200m. Crothers took 800m silver in a gripping duel with New Zealand’s great Peter Snell.
An injured Kidd was an also-ran, yes, but in probably the most famous 10,000m race of all-time, won by American Billy Mills, with a thrilling final kick.
Two medals: one silver, one bronze. This, with an exception or two, has been par for the course for Canada in athletics at the Olympics or world championships ever since.
Until the mid-1980s, when Canada began to develop some sprinting quality and depth, our Olympic track team relied on a middle-distance runner here, a decathlete there, a racewalker over here, a shot putter there for its medals.
This is changing, dramatically so, as Canadian athletics prepares for one of its busiest seasons ever. Edmonton will be a key destination, with the Canadian track and field championships, the TrackTown Canada meet on the National Track League (NTL) circuit, and the Junior Pan American track and field championships on offer at Foote Field in July and early August.
Canada is developing depth and quality in both men’s and women’s sprints; an elite men’s pole vaulter has emerged in Shawnacy Barber; high jumper Derek Drouin, who won bronze at the London Olympics, remains in the mix of an extremely deep worldwide field; Brianne Thiesen in the heptathlon and decathlete Damien Warner are among the world’s best all-around athletes; and Cam Levins, who won bronze in the 10,000m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow Scotland, is part of the discussion at that distance.
Jessica Zelinka remains a factor in both the heptathlon and the 100m hurdles.
Which is not to say Canada should expect a massive medal haul either at the Pan American Games in Toronto this summer or at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But the Canadian track team is trending in the right direction. The portfolio is diversifying.
Last weekend in Austin, Texas, Barber, 20, cleared 5.91 metres in the pole vault, a Canadian record by a large margin and a world-leading result in 2015. Clearing that height at London earned a couple of athletes podium spots. The world record is 6.16 metres.
Barber, a dual citizen whose father, George, is from Kincardine, Ont., won bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He also competed for Canada at the 2013 world championships as an 18-year-old, a junior-age athlete.
Last weekend in Nassau, Bahamas, at the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) World Relays meet, Canada’s 4x100m and 4x400m women’s relay teams qualified for the 2016 Olympics.
Crystal Emmanuel of Scarborough, Ont., Kimberly Hyacinthe of Lachenaie, Que., Shai-Anne Davis of Toronto and Khamica Bingham of Caledon, Ont., finished fourth and broke the Canadian record in both rounds of the 4x100m relay competition. The Canadians ran their preliminary heat in 42.94 seconds, lowering the mark of 42.99 they set at the 2013 world championships.
In the final, they ran 42.85, crossing the line .01 seconds behind the team from Great Britain, who finished third.
The women’s 4x400m team of Nicole Sassine of Windsor, Ont., Fawn Dorr of Marten River, Ont., Carline Muir of Edmonton and Audrey Jean-Baptiste of Montreal, Que., placed sixth in 3:29.65 to punch Canada’s ticket to Rio in that event.
Both the men’s 4x100m and 4x200m relay teams were disqualified for fumbling baton exchanges. That’s not good. Except it is clear the talent is there if they can tidy up the handoffs. And they’ll have other chances to quality for Rio.
“In the (recent) past, we haven’t really had the wheels,” said Mathieu Gentès, Athletics Canada’s director of public affairs and corporate services. “They had to get the stick around very efficiently to do what they did.
“Obviously, that culminated in a world championship medal (bronze in 2013) and, you can argue, an Olympic medal.”
Famously, Canada’s men’s 4x100m relay team was disqualified in the 2012 Olympic final owing to a lane violation after seemingly having won a bronze medal.
If anything, the men’s relay team is getting faster and, certainly, younger.
Sprinter Andre De Grasse, 20, of Markham, Ont., ran a wind-aided 9.87 seconds at the Mt. Sac Relays, for example, and followed that up with a 10.04 100m victory last weekend at a dual UCLA-USC meet in Los Angeles.
Aaron Brown, 21, who was part of those muffed baton teams in Nassau, has emerged in recent years as a world-class 100m and 200m sprinter.
“You’re literally going back to the Donovan (Bailey) and Bruny (Surin) days,” Gentès said of the last time Canada had a sprint group of this calibre. “Now, these guys aren’t at that level yet. ... You don’t want to put expectations on a young man, but with what we’re seeing, I don’t know how Andre doesn’t not dip below 10 seconds (for the 100m) this year. It looks like he’s right there.”
Canada is close, if not right there, in a larger cluster of disciplines than any point in recent years, if not ever.
“We can be honest, it wasn’t that long ago we’d go to a worlds or an Olympic Games and we knew where our hopes were in limited events,” Gentès said. “And if things didn’t come through for us, barring a minor miracle, those were our chances.
“Now that’s not the case at all. The pyramid is getting wider at all levels.”
Check out my blog at edmontonjournal.com/Sweatsox