Welcome to The Rings a weekly update and podcast on all things about the upcoming Olympics, brought to you by The XC
⏱T-minus 53 Days until the Opening Ceremony
On most weekends now, I stay up late and pay something like $5.99 to watch North America's best athletes push each other to new heights and chase Olympics standards. On Saturday, I saw Kitchener, Ontario's Ben Flanagan beat perennial American track star Ben True in the 5,000m. I saw Julie-Anne Staehli do her weekly trick of channeling forces from the Twilight Zone to run a 5,000m PB. I watched Gabriela DeBues-Stafford become the fourth-fastest 800m woman in Canadian history.
I know some viewers grumble about having to pay a fee to watch these races, but I must say, it's well worth the money. I'd much rather invest my six bucks in Tracklandia, Tracksmith, or Trackwhateverelse than on those three Starbucks "cake pops" I bought that one time for the same price (seriously, it's a Timbit on a stick). And not only are the streams excellent from their quality to their commentary, that tiny fee I pay goes to those who really make the show worth watching: the athletes.
Sign me up. Take my money. Every. Single. Time.
Podcast: Cam Levins
This week's guest on The XC Podcast is Canadian marathon record holder and Hoka One One athlete Cameron Levins. Last week, some would have called the best Canadian athlete without Olympic standard. Then, on Sunday, with just a week remaining in the Olympic marathon qualification period, that changed. Between raindrops and nine time zones away from his residence in Portland Oregon, Levins won the S7 marathon in Loipersdorf, Austria in a time of 2:10:14 — comfortably under Olympic standard of 2:11:30.
In this episode the 32-year-old takes me through his latest race in great detail, he shares the wise advice American track star Jenny Simpson gave him back in 2012, and at one point he admits to having a soft spot for Korean dramas.
The Long Interval
A number of uncarded Canadians have achieved Olympic standard — is it time to reconsider the carding system?
The current Olympic qualification period is probably the most stressful one that athletes will endure in their careers for two pandemic-related reasons. First, it’s the longest, spanning on and off from May 2019 to June 2021. Second, official races in COVID times are few and far between. For athletes, these two oddities result in months of impromptu, potentially expensive trips across the continent and the world.
As you read that last sentence, sitting at your home desk for the 478th consecutive day, you probably thought that a quick trip to Austria or a three-week training camp in California sounds like a dream. Especially if, like many of the nation’s best runners, jumpers and throwers, you're going there on Athletics Canada's dime.
Key word: many. Some of those athletes we’ve been watching dip under Olympic standard — on what seems like a weekly basis as of late — still have little to no support from the country’s track and field governing body.
Athletics Canada's Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) funds the training and travel of many international calibre athletes. Someone who benefits from that program, in colloquial track nerd parlance, is "carded." Many Olympians and hopefuls, based on their performance in the last few years, are carded, and figure on the list.
It’s a tough list to make, if you weren’t already on it before the start of the pandemic. The majority of 2019/20 carded athletes (who were added to the list based on results from 2018/2019) were transferred to the same level of support on the 2020/21 list, leaving little funding available for new breakout stars.
“Due to the need to continue to support existing CAPP members and our limited resources we do not expect to add many, if any, athletes to CAPP at the start of the 2020/21 CAPP year,” writes Athletics Canada in its Canadian Athletics Performance Pathway (CAPP) Selection Policy Document.
Some athletes were added to the funding list as late as September 2020, according to the document. Since then, however, several athletes who don’t already figure on the list have achieved times that warrant a nomination to it. Athletes like Tristan Woodfine, who beat the Olympic marathon standard by 39 seconds in October, or Kieran Lumb, who currently ranks 22nd on the World Athletics’ 5,000m top list and has a strong chance of representing Canada in Tokyo. The best place to look if you want to pinpoint top Canadian athletes who are not carded is down the women’s 5,000m depth chart.
5,000m women with Olympic Standard
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford (Toronto, ON) - Time: 14:44.12 (carded)
Andrea Seccafien (Guelph, ON) - Time: 14:57.07 (carded)
Julie-Anne Staehli (Lucknow, ON) - Time: 14:57.50 (not carded)
Kate Van-Buskirk (Toronto, ON) - Time: 14:59.80 (not carded)
Natalia Hawthorn (Vancouver, BC) - Time: 15:05.91 (not carded)
Olympic Standard: 15:10
Now, we can’t blame Athletics Canada for not perfectly predicting that, say, Tristan Woodfine would run Olympic standard. The guy is barely on Strava, and the only way to know for sure he was fit before the London Marathon would have been to send a GPS-wielding P.I. to weed-whack around Eastern Ontario’s backroads and record splits.
In general, guessing who will be in the best shape in six months, unless you bet on Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, is kind of a fool’s errand. So, why not take some of the guessing out of it?
Maybe it’s time for Athletics Canada to consider implementing bonuses into their carding system for athletes who hit standards and make teams. Such a structure would ensure that all athletes who run at an Olympic calibre (in Olympics years and non-Olympic years) are supported, including those whose progression could barely have been guessed a year prior.
I’m not calling the entire carding system flawed. Betting on athletes well ahead of the Games allows them to use the funding to train properly for months to years in advance. Plus, the feeling of security that comes with guaranteed monthly cheques for the next year certainly does wonders to alleviate anxiety. So that should stay. What I propose is a kind of hybrid model, where the next list of carded athletes is slightly shorter, in exchange for more open slots.
Imagine: Andrea Seccafien enters 2021 carded because of her performance in the 5,000m at the 2019 World championship performance. Fair. Natalia Hawthorn runs 5,000m standard, and instantly makes $10,000. Also fair.
Here’s an adjacent thought from my colleague at The XC, Michael Doyle (retrieved from my own text messages of track nerd conversations).
Michael Doyle: Here's a crazy idea: pay Olympic-calibre and team athletes; pay bonuses when they make the standard, and then when they are picked for the team, they get a salary or contract for that term. If they already get paid, say, more than $100,000 annually as a sponsored athlete, then they would be ineligible for the funding. It's time to pay Olympians for being professionals who work in support of a massive, highly profitable machine. After all, the Olympics is, at its core, a TV show and media product.
Perhaps Athletics Canada can chew on these ideas. Meanwhile, in the spirit of paying the currently fast, I will personally donate and e-transfer $10 to any athlete who runs faster than 18-year-old Hobbs Kessler.
Canada's new Olympic track qualifiers
This week was filled with close calls, as far as Olympic standards go. Just one Canadian track athlete, however, dipped under a new standard. Keep in mind, as I wrote about in Edition 1, that an athlete does not need to have achieved time standard in order to be selected to Team Canada — they can make the Olympic team based on World Athletics points. This could become quite relevant, as several Canadian athletes across events ran times just outside of Olympic standard over the weekend (more on that below.)
Women's 800m - Standard: 1:59:50
Gabriela Debues-Stafford (Toronto, ON) - Time: 1:58.70
Three last strides:
1. A storm is brewing in the steeplechase
Don't look now, but Team Canada might suddenly find itself with difficult selections to make in the men's steeplechase.
The first of three spots will certainly go to Toronto's Matt Hughes. The national record holder is in great form again this year — I know this because he has run well under Olympic standard, and also because I sometimes spot him on runs. He waved last time, it was nice.
While Hughes trains, three men, all under the age of 26, are quietly waging war for the two remaining spots. So far this year, John Gay of Vancouver has run 8:23.96 and 8:23.52. Jean-Simon Desgagnés of Québec clocked a 8:24.40 last weekend. Ryan Smeeton of Calgary has a personal best 8:27.90. The Olympic standard is 8:22:00.
Watch for Gay, Desgagnés and Smeeton to try and dip under standard in these next few weeks. The Canadian Olympic Trials of late June will also offer a great opportunity for one of the three to qualify, especially if Hughes does not race (I'll ask him if he is racing the next time I run into him). If Hughes does race trials, and none of the three young horsemen runs under standard, the selection committee might revert to World Athletics points. As it stands, that would favour Gay, then Desgagnés.
2. So, just how good is Nate Riech?
Well, for starters, the Victoria, B.C. athlete is the best T38 1,500m runner in the world. His time of 3:47.89, achieved on Saturday afternoon at the Portland Track Festival, is almost eight seconds faster than the personal best mark of his nearest competitor, Deon Kenzie of Australia.
Riech is only now seeping into the collective consciousness of track geeks from Vancouver to Newfoundland, because his leap in fitness is a recent one. Before 2021, the 26-year-old had not broken 3:57:00.
3. The decathletes did it all
If we didn't already know that our two contemporary decathletes, Damian Warner and Pierce Lepage, are Canada's closest things to Superman since Christopher Plummer, the two high-flying Ontarians confirmed it over the weekend.
After last weekend's meet in Gotzis, Austria, Warner and Lepage rank first and second in the world, respectively. Warner's score also makes him the fourth best decathlete in history. Weirdest take I overheard in the Twitter comments: "If Damian used blocks for the 1,500m, he would have hit 9,000 (points)." Dunno about that one.
With defending Olympic champion Ashton Eaton now retired, Warner and Lepage's strongest competitor in Tokyo will probably be France's Kevin Mayer, who has the current world record of 9,126 points.
On the women's side, Georgia Ellenwood inched closer to Olympic standard of 6,440 points, with a new personal best of 6224 points also in Gotzis. Ellenwood is the country's top active heptathlete, and ranks fourth in Canadian history.