Canada's track and field team faces tough task


TORONTO - When Les Gramantik sat down with Canadian Olympic Committee officials months ago to jot down a goal for the Beijing Olympics, the magic number for medals was two.

But the head coach of Canada’s track and field team couldn’t possibly have predicted the string of unfortunate events that would occur in the ensuing months.

Gramantik could not have known that former world champion Perdita Felicien would suffer a stubborn stress fracture in her ankle that wouldn’t heal in time for Beijing, or that Jessica Zelinka would rupture a tendon in her right foot at the Pan American Games last summer, forcing her to learn to take off with her left foot in the long jump.

Now, Canada’s chances of ending a medal drought in track and field that stretches back more than a decade seem exceedingly slim - especially when track and field is “the most competitive global sport,” as Gramantik regularly points out.

“It’s difficult,” Gramantik says of the sport that has seen more than 80 countries capture Olympic medals. "There’s a lot of people out there.

“To see Botswana have somebody on the podium, and Mozambique and countries you didn’t even know existed five years ago. And the breakup of the former Soviet Union is killing us. Look at the international rankings, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. . . Borat is competing in something probably.”

Canada hasn’t marched to the Olympic podium in track and field since 1996 in Atlanta, when Donovan Bailey captured gold in the 100 metres and then led the 4x100-metre relay team to victory.

The team finished 17th that year in Olympic track and field standings, which calculates top-eight finishes, and that was down from ninth place four years earlier in Barcelona.

In Sydney and Athens? Canada failed to win a medal, and was 35th in both Games. The Canadian team had three sixth-place results four years ago in Greece.

Gramantik hoped to have seven or eight athletes make the final in Beijing, but with the COC’s focus on winning medals, it’s reaching that podium that really matters - especially when it comes time to divvy up funding.

“What it really means to us as a federation is financial security for years to come,” Gramantik says. "When I sit down in the fall with (COC officials), I’m not suggesting that the funding would be 100 per cent cut, but I tell you right now, if we don’t do well enough in Beijing, we will be severely under scrutiny.

“I keep emphasizing how difficult our sport compared to luge, or any other sport. But reality is, that’s not the way the government looks at it. A gold medal in luge is a gold medal.”

Felicien would have been considered a podium favourite in Beijing, rebounding in spectacular fashion from her crash at the Athens Olympics to capture silver at last summer’s world championships in Osaka, Japan. Gary Reed won Canada’s other medal there, a silver in the 800 metres.

Zelinka was ranked No. 4 in the world in the heptathlon last year, and won gold at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. But the London, Ont., native injured her foot in the process, and has had a shaky season so far, with 37 heptathletes scoring ahead of her this year.

Now, Reed and 400-metre runner Tyler Christopher will carry much of Canada’s hopes for a medal into the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.

“I’m fine with everyone watching me,” Christopher says on the pressure to perform. "I’ve done this race for however many years and it hasn’t changed if people are watching me or not. I still run 400 metres, and in the Olympic final I’m going to run 400 metres.

“The most pressure is going to be on myself. If I don’t get a medal, I’ll be more disappointed than anybody else will be.”

Christopher, who won bronze at the world championships in 2005, has the eighth fastest time in the world this season, but a personal-best performance would put the Chilliwack, B.C., native in medal contention.

Reed’s best time this season - a Canadian record at the recent Monaco Grand Prix - puts him sixth in the world, and the 800 is one of the most competitive events there is. The Kamloops, B.C., native was 18th in Athens, with runners from 15 different countries finishing ahead of him.

“It’s deep and it’s a very, very talented group of guys,” Reed says. “There’s not one guy who dominates my event, which makes it really tough. You’ve got 20 or 25 guys running 1:44 (Reed’s Canadian record is one minute 43.68 seconds). And they’re almost all from different countries, so it’s very deep, very tough.”

In a tactical race like the 800, with runners jostling for position, anything can happen.

“The tactics of it can really go your way one day or they can go really against you, so it’s a tough challenge,” Reed says. “It makes for really exciting track and field, and really fun for me.”

Reed, 26, remains optimistic about his team’s chances of a medal.

“I always think big, so I think we’re going to win five. But that’s just me. I would love to win five to just roast it,” Reed said. “We’ll see. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised though.”

There are a handful of athletes capable of surprises, including Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. The 100-metre hurdler from Whitby, Ont., who’s long competed in Felicien’s shadow, has the 12th fastest time in the world, but less than two-tenths of a second stand between her and No. 1.

Dylan Armstrong of Kamloops, B.C., is 13th in the shot put, and on the heels of a Canadian-record performance this season, is only getting better.

Canada will send four throwers to Beijing - Armstrong, James Steacy (hammer), Sultana Frizell (hammer) and Scott Russell (javelin) - something Gramantik says hasn’t happened “since ancient times.”

“It’s kind of the new guard out there,” Steacy says. “We’re all young, and hopefully going to stick around and be part of the fun for the next few years.”

Indeed, the next few years look promising for Canada’s track and field team. Of the 31 athletes going to Beijing, 22 of them are Olympic rookies.

Carline Muir of Toronto, who will race the 400 metres, is the team’s youngest athlete at 20.

Tim Berrett, who’s 43, is the oldest on the team. The Edmonton native will compete in the 50-kilometre race walk in his fifth Olympic Games appearance. He’s competed in nine world championships, more than any other track and field athlete in the world, and has captured 13 national titles.

Track and field will be held at the 91,000-seat Beijing National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest” for its unique architecture. Events begin Aug. 15 and wrap up on Aug. 24 with the men’s marathon.

Isn’t Borat the head coach of the Canadian track team?

I don’t know the man, but ‘ouch!’ :stuck_out_tongue:

Guess it’s tough to forsee that you’ll injure your own athlete.
If they get two- that’s two more than the whole rest of the team has won so far. We currently trail Togo. (I’m not making this up)

Dylan did very well to come 4th and crack 21m, but to miss a medal by 1cm has to be disappointing.

A number of PBs so far and a great HEP. With PBs by Carline Muir in women’s 400, lets hope that’s an indication of Tyler’s readiness

bonderchuk is his coach. If he gets a group going, thigs will move. Hope someone is raising some money to push his way.
We know Kevin tyler is doing the job- and raising money for his program. Also think how much has come from Derek Evely, including starting out Shane Neime and Gary Reid among others. Derek and bonderchuk are both in Kamloops together

I think Bonderchuk has been there for a while now. Dylan threw the 12lb Hammer 75.xx in the BC Highschool Champs in '99, and I think it was under Bonderchuk’s tutelage. Hopefully their new facility is helping.

I always find it interesting when Les talk as if he actually coaches these athletes. Anyways, what inexpensive things can Canada do to turn things around. Is money the only answer? People can say this and that about the US college system but at least it CAN provide very competitive opportunities for athletes during very important years. I know, I know it’s not perfect and not every athlete succeeds but some do…Thompson, Kerron Stewart, Veronica Campbell etc etc etc etc etc.

Canadian universities offer an indoor season…

I personally believe if there could be very competitive opportunities in Canada with some amount of prize money (anything!) that might encourage athletes to work part time and stay in the sport a little longer. I’ve known a number of VERY talented athletes that had to leave the sport, in part for financial reasons, but also due to a lack of interest. Anyone who has competed in Southern Ontario know’s what I’m talking about!


I said everything 20 years ago. Fix sport budgets for four years and have Sport Canada consist of an auditor and 4 secretaries to track progress for the next 4 yr cycle. Last I checked they had 900 employees there sucking up nearly all the money there is. To justify themselves, they micro-manage eveything twice a year, eliminating any possibility of a coherent plan by the federation