Welcome to The Rings a weekly update and podcast on all things about the upcoming Olympics, brought to you by The XC

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⏱T-minus 46 Days until the Opening Ceremony

Let's do some quick math. Canadian Olympic trials start on June 24. Athletes coming back to Canada have to quarantine for 14 days. They probably want to be out of self-isolation for a few days before the trials begin. Today is June 7, and I bet many of them are already sitting on their couch, eating almonds and playing X-Box, bored out of their minds. So this edition is for you, bored athletes!

This week, I share my podcast conversation with 5,000 and 10,000m runner and Olympic hopeful Ben Flanagan. I swear, we recorded before I knew that The Terminal Mile was also about to release an episode with Ben this week. They beat us to it (ugh, Rochus 1 - Cyr 0).

This week's Long Interval asks: why are Olympic hopefuls still required to quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Canada without exception? And what will that mean for Canadian trials?

All that and more below.


On this week's pod: Ben Flanagan

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On this week's episode, I chat with Kitchener, Ontario's Ben Flanagan, who  lives and trains in Virginia as part of the Reebok Boston track club. The 26-year-old Flanagan has forced his way into the consciousness of Athletics Canada's Olympic team selection committee by posting solid results across in the 5,000m and 10,000m this year. Most recently, Flanagan set a new 5,000m PB of 13:20 at Tracksmith's Platinum PT qualifier in Boston last week, winning the race in the process.

Ben and I talked about how he hopes to punch his ticket to Tokyo, high mileage vs low mileage, Ben's fascination with Utah, what it felt like to beat Ben True, and more.

The Long Interval - Quarantine rules will ruin Canada's Olympic trials

Removing the Olympic auto-qualifying clause for winners of trials could ruin the meet. But don’t blame Athletics Canada; blame the lingering 14-day quarantine.

On May 21, Athletics Canada updated its athlete nomination criteria for the Tokyo Olympics (read it in 19 short pages here!)

Here’s the most important update: winning an event at Canada’s Olympic trials, which happen on June 24-27, no longer guarantees you automatic qualification to the team in the given event. Why? “The ongoing COVID situation and the continuing travel challenges.”

The reasoning is sound from a public health perspective: the potential for automatic qualification at trials could motivate excessive travel into Montreal – a city that finally seems to be wiggling itself out of the pandemic’s 16-month grip. From a fairness standpoint, Athletics Canada’s decision also makes sense: it sounds unjust to make such a huge incentive available only to the athletes who can navigate restrictions and make it to Canada in time, as many of them were still racing in the US and Europe as of late last week.

Yet, inevitable as the decision to remove the Auto-Q might be, it will do little to validate our attempt at a “normal” Olympic Trials. It pains me to write that these trials might suck, because I am optimistic about track's resurgence in the country and beyond. But, compared to what they could have been, well, these trials might suck.

For 30 seconds, imagine being an Olympic-level track athlete – it’s easy, I do it all the time. There are three spots available on Team Canada for your event, and five athletes are eligible. You can no longer guarantee your Olympic berth by winning the national trials, and instead must hope that Athletics Canada’s selection committee judges you to be better than your contemporaries based on “current form and fitness,” “proven ability to perform on demand” and “other relevant factors,” among other metrics. In this thought experiment, you are currently in Oregon, still massaging your calves after that 5,000m you ran in Stumptown.

Here’s your choice:
A) You can go to Canada, quarantine for 14 days (fun!), train on a treadmill or run intervals around your garden, and then race trials. Winning them no longer guarantees you anything.

B) You can prove your “ability to perform on demand” in Portland or Germany or France, instead of Montreal, and can swap that pesky quarantine with an outing in Paris, where you take photos near the Eiffel Tower, Charles Philibert-Thiboutot style.

To be sure, if most of the country’s top performers choose the more attractive option B to dodge the quarantine, and it makes the trials feel somewhat pointless, it will not be Athletics Canada’s fault. Their hands are tied by the continued absence of quarantine exceptions for Olympic hopefuls (or better yet, vaccinated Olympic hopefuls) who wish to go back to Canada to race. The lingering quarantine might be the safest public health call, but it is in no way consistent with other measures.

As it stands, Canadian Olympic hopefuls can enter countries in Europe and skip quarantine by showing documentation of the meet they are to attend. By now the only barrier to hurdle when entering the United States is a winking, finger wagging duty free cop asking them to “be good down here.” But when they return to Canada, vaccinated or not, they still cannot negotiate the 14 days, even though some athletes of other sports, like hockey players in NHL, were exempted from quarantine in Canada as early as March.

Fifty-eight per cent of Canada’s population is vaccinated at least once as of June 3, and talks of opening the Canada-USA border for everyone – not just athletes - are once again surfacing. Aren’t we able to afford a quarantine exemption for a few hundred qualified, vaccinated and probably solitary athletes by now? Maybe it’s just me, but I sense that making the St. Catharine’s, Ontario bar scene available to Moh Ahmed by late June is pretty low-risk.

There was an opportunity to shorten the quarantine, or wave it altogether, and allow for Olympic trials where Ahmed and Justyn Knight could have pulled Ben Flanagan to a 13:12, or where Gabriela DeBues-Stafford could have showed why she is Canada’s best 1,500m athlete, and pull her sister Lucia to Olympic standard in the process. Instead, each of those athletes’ appearance at the races is still uncertain, and the trials now risk looking even more like every other event since March 2020: weird, empty, asterisked.

Who knows? Maybe Canada’s best athletes will show up to trials, and maybe it will be the best meet to grace Canadian soil since 2019. After all, the trials have a World Athletics category “B” ranking, which means it’s still the best Canadian meet in which to score points.

I hope they all show up, and I hope Montreal helps build momentum for the Games to come. But it’s absurd to expect that those who do not have the proper means to train inside their yards will come back to Canada and swap two weeks of peak phase workouts for Netflix parties from the couch.

🇨🇦New Canadians to hit standard

This week, we were made sure that tying the Olympic standard counts just as much as beating it. Thanks, Natalia Hawthorne. The Vancouver runner now ranks second in Canada's 1,500m depth chart, behind Gabriela Debues-Stafford.

Women's 1,500m - Standard: 4:04.20

Natalia Hawthorn (Vancouver, B.C. )  - Time: 4:04.20

One last stride

The Marathon Teams are picked; 10k runners, race walkers too

Athletics Canada revealed the team of six marathoners chosen to represent Canada in Sapporo (where the Tokyo Olympic marathon is being held) last week. Selection went as expected. The 2019 national champions with guaranteed spots, Dayna Pidhoresky and Trevor Hofbauer, and then the two fastest women (Malindi Elmore: 2:24:50 / Natasha Wodak 2:26:19) and two fastest men (Cameron Levins 2:10:14 / Ben Preisner 2:10:17) comprise the team.

This cycle's battle for Olympic spots was more fierce than ever before in Canada. Some athletes left home were Rachel Cliff (2:26:56) and Tristan Woodfine (2:10:51). In early 2020, Cliff's mark was the national record, and Woodfine's time still ranks him seventh in Canadian history. This year is also the first time in recent history that Canada sends the maximum six runner to the Olympics.

Until next time,

Alex (Twitter / Instagram / Youtube)