Canadian athletics is a broad and inclusive category. It includes distance runners, sprinters, visually impaired athletes, wheelchair athletes, jumpers, throwers, walkers and everything in between.
It is a big family.
As we turn the page on this decade, it is important to look at where the family was, where the family is, and where we are going.
Canadian athletics have come a long way in the last decade. In 2010, nine of ten Canadians probably couldn’t name one of the men on our 4×100 team and no women had competed in the Olympic marathon for twenty plus years. Now, Andre DeGrasse and Aaron Brown are both in the top eight international sprinters and are known across the country. In the same vein, Lanni Marchant and Krista Duchene competed in the Rio marathon, notwithstanding that Canada already has three women qualified for the distance in Tokyo.
We have come a long way.
Sure there were bright spots such as the likes of Dylan Armstrong in the shot put, but the chances of Canada winning one medal at the World Championships, let alone the Olympics, was slim.
In 2012, we got a taste of the action. An impressive performance from Derek Druoin won him Bronze and the men’s 4×100 team finished third, only to get disqualified because of a misstep of mere millimeters.
The Rio Olympics in 2016 were another step forward for the program. Andre DeGrasse broke onto the scene with three medals, Mo Ahmed finished an amazing fifth in the 5,000, Derek Druoin won Gold in the high jump, Damian Warner won Bronze in the Decathalon, Brianne Theisen-Eaton won Bronze in the Heptathalon, Evan Dunfee was devastated by a bump that left him to finish fourth, and Eric Gillis finished the highest any Canadian marathoner has over the Games’ final event.
These results represent growth – exponential growth.
The 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha however, punctuated our depth. Canada seemed to be in contention for a medal, or at the very least had athletes in the final, in every distance on the track and many in the field. Lyndsay Tessier finished ninth in the marathon, Evan Dunfee won his bronze in the race walk, Andre DeGrasse won two medals, the women’s 4×400 team impressed but fell just short, Mo Ahmed finished third in the 5,000 and just missed out in the 10,000, Alysha Newman was one height short, Gabriela Debues-Stafford ran 3:56, Brittany Crew was competitive in the shot put, Mike Mason just missed a medal in the high jump, Gen Lalonde just missed a Canadian record, and Damien Warner metaled in the Decathlon again.
These were just a few of the many Canadian performances which caught my eye.
The tremendous depth this country is developing is unparalleled in our country’s history and some of this credit must go to the coaches, sporting organizations, parents, and volunteers, and of course, the athletes themselves.
What is next for Canadian athletics? I am not sure.
But in order to grow the sport, there are really three elements that need more support.
1) More Sponsors
It goes to say that without money, it is hard to encourage young athletes to take on the sport as a profession, or for that matter, support the athletes who run, jump and throw for our country. In Canada, the sponsorship of events is a major issue. Although some companies, like Scotiabank, support some major events; events such as the Canadian Cross Country Championships, are not sponsored.
Without sponsorship, or limited sponsorships, prize money for elite athletes becomes an after thought. From what information I can gather, beyond the XC Championships, that the Track and Field Championships also do not offer a prize purse. As far as the road championships, those do provide some more financial incentive, but most still fall short of what American races offer.
Boosting these prize purses, if possible and without taking away from the average runner’s experience, will help to grow the sport.
2) More Events
More events are also imperative.
Currently, there are only two national caliber track events in Canada every year. The Harry Jerome Classic in Vancouver and the Canadian Championships themselves.
Without opportunities to race on Canadian soil, the top athletes such as Ahmed stay away, race in the Diamond League, train on American soil. This is their right and their training is probably better for it in the more temperate climates. However, without many of Canada’s top athletes training and racing in the country, there are fewer role models for youngsters to look up to.
3) More Fans
What comes first: the cart or the horse?
The same can be said for the discussion in Canadian Athletics. What comes first: events or fans?
Regardless of the order, we know that in order for sponsors to provide money, fans need to attend and care – not just during the Olympics.
This seems to be the ongoing problem for Canadian Athletics and the solution is not cut and dry. Honestly, I have no solutions. I do think however, that providing the opportunity for the public to race in the same events and on the same track as our Olympians is the first step to increasing interest in elite competition.
Aside from my three points above, I truly think that we are entering the golden age of Canadian Athletics and that Canadian runners, jumpers, and throwers have a lot to be proud about heading into Tokyo 2020.
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