Welcome to The Rings a weekly update and podcast on all things about the upcoming Olympics, brought to you by The XC
⏱T-minus 60 Days until the Opening Ceremony
I'll tell you why I respect the heck out of Cameron Levins - he takes risks.
Three times in 2019 and 2020, he could have comfortably sailed to a 2:10 marathon and qualify for the Olympics. Instead, the guy kept trying to run 2:07, presumably just to show he could. His plan, however, kept backfiring, and he found himself without a spot on Tokyo's start line with just eight days to spare before the qualification deadline.
So, what does he do? He takes a plane to Austria, races in some obscure marathon and dips a minute under Olympic standard. Pure risk, pure guts.
This week's newsletter is about risk and guts. Not only does it include more detail on Levins' performance, it contains my meditations on why I think IOC member Dick Pound's controversial comments on athletes getting priority access to vaccines somehow (gulp!) aged well. And if that opinion isn't gutsy enough for you, check out the podcast below, where Michael Doyle and I share our hottest takes about how we think Athletics Canada should select the women's and men's Olympic marathon teams.
Thanks for reading!
This week, we talk all about Canada's Olympic marathon squad — who we think will be selected, including Cameron Levins, who qualified in dramatic, last-minute fashion over the weekend in Austria, of all places (more on that below).
(Or search for "The XC Podcast" wherever you get your podcasts)
The Long interval
Dick Pound's comments about getting athletes priority access to vaccines are aging as well as he is
In January, former IOC Vice-President and WADA President Dick Pound told media that his home country of Canada should grant its Olympic athletes priority access to the national vaccine queue, so that they be inoculated before the Tokyo Games. More specifically, he was suggesting that athletes get jabbed after high-risk populations and frontline workers but, presumably, before pretty much everybody else.
“In Canada," Pound told Sky News in January, "where we might have 300 or 400 (Olympic) athletes, to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level, I don’t think there would be any kind of public outcry about that." Boy, was he wrong about that second part.
Blowback came from professors, ethicists, and athletes, who voiced their disapproval of Pound's remarks in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and The New York Times, among other publications (including us, The XC). Pound's comments also made him too easy a target for many Twitter users (Ah! Rich Olympics Guy cares more about his own entertainment than the basic health of his neighbours! Shame on him!)
For what it's worth, I first disagreed with Pound's suggestion too, even if no priority access for athletes would mean not sending a team to the Olympics, or cancelling them altogether. That stance was new territory for me, as I usually vote for the show to go on. As much as I think the Olympics could do better in the way of athlete promotion and financing, political mobility and selection of host countries (why so autocratic?), I find it important to preserve the Games. For now they are still the event that gives an amateur athlete the best - however, lousy - chance at gaining visibility, which could translate to endorsement deals and a career in sport.
But even for me, an apparent Olympics apologist, immunizing Canadian athletes before more vulnerable citizens just to watch a few track finals sounded like a bad call. Until, like, last week, when it became evident that much has changed in Canada since Pound's comments first hit the mainstream.
Early 2021 was a different time. Remember it? Canada trailed The United States, Poland, Germany and many other countries by far in national vaccination rates. Canadians lamented the nation's lack of aggressiveness in securing contracts with pharmaceutical companies, cursing its perennial "nice guy" image because, well, nice guys suck at inoculation wars. Shots in the country were scarce, so being out-raced to an appointment in downtown Toronto by, say, Andre De Grasse, could have left you more vulnerable to Canada's overwhelming third wave for an extra month. For that reason, the order in which we immunized was especially crucial.
But now, Canada's vaccination rate has surpassed Germany's and Poland's, and ranks third in all G20 countries in portion of population once-vaccinated (53 per cent, at the time of writing). In fact, vaccines are having a moment in Canada. As Canadians wait for the Olympics to begin, and for hockey playoffs to really get good, they rally behind Vaccine Hunters, a group of hackers who use Twitter to help people across the country find available doses near them. And if The Hunters are our team, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto immunologist who can't stop tweeting good COVID-19 mitigation news, has become our benevolent mascot.
Now that an increasing number of vulnerable citizens and frontline workers are twice immunized, and many others have had their important first dose, sparing a quick second jab to athletes as soon as tomorrow sounds reasonable. Especially so when considering that those athletes will probably travel more than the rest of us in the next few months. Pound made a good point in The Toronto Star last week, when he said that it would be "mean-spirited and irresponsible" to expose Canadian Olympians - and not to mention everybody they encounter - to COVID-19 as they travel to The Games.
With all that being said, I still cannot perfectly defend the ethics of prioritizing Olympians over others for a second dose. Even though the vaccine lines are shorter now, it's still unfair to let people skip them just because they are good at sports. But if we start arguing the ethics of Canada's vaccine rollout, we quickly run into trouble. Distributing millions of vaccine doses in an ethical order is a daunting task; one that, as far as I am concerned, is already breached.
In Quebec, La Presse reported that the provincial sport institute has already started vaccinating Olympic hopefuls. Then, there is Pfizer and BioNTech's deal with the IOC that plans to donate vaccines for Olympic athletes to countries around the world, including Canada.
Logistical issues further muddled the order of doses. I live in a hotspot in Toronto, where everybody - essential workers, students, parents, and likely athletes - wrestled with each other for weeks for a limited number of vaccine appointments by constantly refreshing a finicky webpage. We hundreds of thousands of Torontonians were not only ranked in a queue based on who most needed a shot - we were ordered based on Wifi signal. So arguing that vaccinating Olympians right now is an abhorrent act of classism doesn't really hold up anymore, now that even some low-risk people with good internet like me, who pretty much only leaves his apartment to run and to buy cereal, are Pfizered at least once already.
Whether or not the Olympics should happen at all merits its own debate. The world is not back to normal, after all. India is facing a crushing fourth wave, Brazil case numbers continue to rise, and even Japan itself is struggling to lift a state of emergency as it counts down the days until athletes flock to their capital. But with each week that passes without a cancellation announcement, and with each new shipment Canada receives from Pfizer or Moderna, Pound's suggestion to prick Team Canada ASAP ages better than Dick himself who, kind of admirably, even at 79, barely ever goes by Richard.
So if, over this next month, we'd add an "Olympian" option on the vaccine ballots across the country, as our most at-risk citizens are already inoculated, and many of our less-vulnerable ones are jabbed at least once, I wouldn't object.
Canada's new Olympic qualifiers
It was a quiet week in the way of Olympic standards. Unless you were up early Sunday morning, you definitely missed watching this one live.
Men's 200m - Standard: 20.24
Jerome Blake (Barnaby, B.C. ) - Time: 19.89
Men's Marathon - Standard: 2:11:30
Cameron Levins (Campbell River, B.C.) - Time: 2:10:14
The last strides
A sigh of relief for Cameron Levins
From most angles, it appeared like marathoner Cameron Levins was destined for Tokyo. He is the Canadian record holder in the distance, he already has Olympic experience, and he recently proved his fitness by casually dipping under the Canadian record of 1:01:28 in a half-marathon time trial that was not timed by his dad.
But the 2:09:25 runner had yet to dip under Olympic standard of 2:11:30 inside the qualification period, which ends on May 31. In a last minute effort, Levins flew to Austria to race in the S7 marathon, which is literally labeled "your final call to Tokyo."
The 32-year-old won the race in a time of 2:10:14, which now pretty much secures his spot on team Canada. Barring major shakeups in the next week, and depending on Athletics Canada's final call, it looks like Levins, along with Trevor Hofbauer and Ben Preisner, will represent Canada in Tokyo.
Sneak Peak of Next Week
How many of our Olympic-level 5,000m runners receive help from the athlete assistance program? Fewer than you think.
Plus, we catch up with one of our favourite top distance runners in a podcast.
Until next time,