Many of Canada’s best track and field athletes will gather this weekend in Montreal for the Olympic trials.
With less than a month before the Games begin in Tokyo, some athletes are using the event as a tune-up and chance to experience some much-needed competition.
But for most of the athletes, there is much more at stake: it’s likely their last opportunity to earn a spot on the team that will represent Canada in Japan.
“The trials can be the worst thing in the world, far more nerve-racking than the Olympics themselves,” says CBC Sports track and field analyst Dave Moorecroft, who competed for Britain at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and two others in the early ’80s.
“Because if it doesn’t go well, you know what it will feel like sitting at home watching the Olympics on television. And for these athletes, the last thing they want to do is to be at home watching other athletes compete.”
Some of the biggest names in Canadian athletics such as sprinter Andre De Grasse and pole vaulter Alysha Newman have already punched their ticket to Tokyo and are not competing. But there’s still many interesting storylines and athletes to watch in Montreal, the first large-scale meet on Canadian soil in nearly two years.
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What’s at stake
It’s a “crazy busy time” for Canadian track officials because with less than a month before the Games, many spots for Tokyo are still up for grabs.
There are two ways to make the team.
Athletes can either meet the Olympic qualifying standard time or distance in their discipline or earn a requisite number of points based on results achieved at various international meets. Officials plan on selecting about 55 athletes to compete in Tokyo. So far, nine athletes have been selected and 28 have achieved the entry standard.
In some events, even if an athlete reaches the standard, they may not necessarily go to Tokyo as countries can only enter three athletes in certain events.
“There’s lots of places up for grabs,” says Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high performance director.
“We’ve got quite a few athletes who are just below or incredibly close. And if they get a good performance or good bonus points, then that can push them up into the quota space and they’ll push up into the entry space.”
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Shaking off the rust
For many athletes, this weekend will be an opportunity for some much-needed competition. Canadians have been adversely affected by COVID-19 restrictions to a greater degree than many of their competitors.
Some Canadians moved to Europe or the United States at the outset of this pandemic and have been able to train and compete unfettered.
“It is far easier in most countries. Most countries have had just more domestic competitions because they’re smaller, you don’t have to travel through provinces,” Nathan says. “Or they’ve given special exemptions to high performance athletes to cross the border and come back again. They haven’t had the same with the challenges that we had, so it’s been incredibly difficult for Canadians.”
Nathan says those who chose to stay in Canada have struggled to find places to train and compete.
“It’s been a real roller coaster for them. And I think most people have had one run or two runs leading into this. And I think there’s one or two that have not competed at all until this opportunity.”
Another COVID sporting event
These Olympic trials are yet another Canadian sporting event that will happen under the cloud of COVID-19. Athletes will be required to quarantine before the trials and their movements will be tightly restricted while on site.
They will also have to remain masked at all times except when competing. Most importantly, there will be no crowd to cheer on athletes; no buzz from spectators before a big race or jump.
“The crowd really makes a difference, they really help the athletes,” Nathan says. “With Olympic spots on the line there will be a lot of internal motivation, but I’m sure they will miss the crowd as well.”
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Pretty healthy, all things considered
Officials won’t be able to blame injuries if the Canadian team doesn’t do well in Tokyo. Usually by this point in the season, there would be a lengthy list of athletes nursing a variety of injuries.
Officials typically monitor Canada’s top 100 athletes and say there are “far, far fewer injuries” this year.
“People have trained much more and competed less,” Nathan says. “They’ve been at home close to their physiotherapist and they haven’t been travelling so much. So actually, the injury levels are quite low.”
Athletes to watch
The 31-year-old from London, Ont., enters trials as the world’s top-ranked decathlete. After two years without competition, he shattered his Candian record last month while winning a record sixth Hypo Meeting title in Austria. His score of 8,995 was only five short of the 9,000 barrier, a magical mark only achieved three other times in the history of decathlon.
Warner won’t compete in the decathlon this weekend but has entered the hurdles and long jump events to work on his technique ahead of Tokyo.
Warner has overcome huge obstacles on the road to being a medal favourite at the Olympics. He was unable to train outdoors for most of the year, instead doing much of his preparation — for one of sport’s most gruelling competitions — inside a hockey arena.
“If you want to be a shot putter then you need to be really big and heavy and strong and muscular and explosive. But then you’ve got to balance all that on top of the pole vault,” Nathan points out. “And still be one of the top 20 long jumpers in the entire world, you know, pulling all those different pieces together is incredible.”
Brown is another athlete who doesn’t need to compete in Montreal but is looking to get much-needed competition ahead of Tokyo.
The 28-year-old Toronto native is also looking to defend his Canadian titles in the 100 and 200 metres — he’s the two-time defending champion in both events.
Brown has spent much of his career in the shadow of fellow Canadian Andre De Grasse but is always a threat to reach the podium. He was part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning 4×100 team in Rio and is currently ranked 10th in the world in the 100 and sixth in the 200.
It is an all-or-nothing scenario at these trials for the high jumper from Corunna, Ont. It has been a rocky road since he won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. It started with an Achilles tear at the 2017 world championships followed by a herniated disc in his neck, which cost him the 2018 season. In 2019, another Achilles injury sidelined him again. The year-long Olympic postponement has helped his body heal.
A lack of competition has made qualifying for Tokyo difficult. Last month, competing for the first time since May 2017, Drouin cleared 2.24 metres, or six centimetres shy of the automatic Olympic entry standard. Should he not clear 2.33 this weekend or at a World Athletics Continental Tour meet on June 29, also in Montreal, he will not have the chance to defend his title in Tokyo.
“If you had told me a year ago, or even six months ago, you’re going to jump 2.24 in your first meet, I would say, ‘OK, that’s better than I thought, maybe I can do this.’ So, I’m really proud right now of how close we are.”
This race has the potential to be the highlight of the weekend. It’s a chance to see one of Canada’s most accomplished international performers as well as some of the sport’s brightest young stars — all with a trip to Tokyo on the line.
Melissa Bishop-Nriagu has already qualified for Tokyo. But she will be pushed by Lindsey Butterworth and Madeleine Kelly. Both runners have come close to achieving the 1:59.50 Olympic standard.
“I know it’s possible for me,” Butterworth told CBC Sports of running the standard. “It’s just … everything coming together on that day and being consistent. I just have to be a bit patient.”
Nathan, Canada’s high performance director, says almost the entire field in this race is a threat to run under two minutes.
“That’s going to be probably one of the most exciting races, in terms of tactics and how they run it.”
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