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

⏱T-minus 39 Days until the Opening Ceremony

This week, I'm cheating.

A part of this edition steps away from the Canadian realm and into the American one, because the US Olympic trials begin at the end of the week, on June 17. I think it's fine if this newsletter occasionally gazes as the United States - would a publication really be Canadian if it didn't sometimes fixate on our southern cousins?

Here, you will find a US Trials fantasy draft podcast, some thoughts on Moh Ahmed and Justyn Knight, a nod to one of our great Canadian marathoners, and more.


Podcast: 🇺🇸 U.S. Olympic Trials Fantasy Draft with Caela Fenton

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In this week's podcast, I chat about all things U.S. Olympic trials with Caela Fenton, who is a Canadian runner, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Oregon, and an even bigger running nerd than Ben Flanagan.

Caela's Ph.D dissertation focuses on media presentation of gender and athletics identity in women's distance running. At the Trials, she will be working at Hayward field with Track Town USA. Those many hats she wears has her plugged into the Oregon and American running communities better than most people. In this podcast I foolishly pit my knowledge against hers, as we try to predict winners of all distance events at the US Olympic Trials in a fantasy draft.

DISCLAIMER: This podcast was recorded before Shelby Houlihan tested positive for a banned substance and was handed a four year ban. We also recorded before Evan Jager pulled out of US Trials due to injury.

The Long Interval - Ahmed, Knight could redefine Canada's legacy in the world of distance running

The Pair of 5,000m standouts could dramatically accelerate Canada's reputation as an emerging track and field powerhouse in Tokyo

Canada has never been bad at track and field.

Go on Google, and search for the results of any given Olympic Games since the mid 1900s. You will probably find that we won two or three medals in athletics, usually silver or bronze, kindly ceding most of the glory to the United States or Russia or China. On the track, like most things Canadian, we have been humbly okay.

In the last decade though, we have gone through pains to change our image on the track. We endeavoured to own the podium, and no longer to rent it, or to be its pleasant, occasional house guest. To reflect that shift in values, Athletics Canada went all dark and changed its pleasant red maple leaf logo to a cryptic black and white mosaic that looks like the shadow of that Dragon Ball Z guy’s head. If that doesn’t spell out imminent dominance, I don’t know what will.

Angry logos aside, Canada’s image on the track is in fact changing. If the 2016 Rio Olympics had a theme, they would be the “No More Mister Nice Canadian” Games – and I’m not talking about marathoner Eric Gillis’ subsequent retirement. Canada won six medals in Rio, tying world powerhouse China, and doubling Poland, a country of Canada’s size. It was the red and white’s best finish since LA in 1932. Derek Drouin won Canada its first gold since 1992. Andre DeGrasse became the de facto heir to Usain Bolt’s King Sprinter title and won three medals. Damian Warner and Brianne Theissen-Eaton, by each winning a bronze medal, painted Canada as a world leader in the decathlon. After 2016, if you really pressed a Canadian on the street, they would shed their humility and (quietly) tell you were no longer “okay” or “not bad”; we had become “pretty good”.

And since those Olympics, Team Canada has continued to trend upwards in athletics. Gabriela DeBues-Stafford became a near world-beater in the 1,500m. Mohammed Ahmed lowered the Canadian middle-distance records below 13 minutes and 27 minutes, and won bronze at the 2019 World championships. The women’s marathon record dropped by four minutes.

Despite those improvements, Canada nevertheless enters the Tokyo Games somewhat of a laggard in distance running. We still dance in the streets when somebody breaks 2:25 or 2:10 in the marathon. Only one woman in our history, Andrea Seccafien, has run faster than the 10,000m Olympic standard of 31:25. The average “fast” Canadian still gets hooked on life support when he goes to Kenya for a training camp (life support is justa second helping of Ugali, I think).

The 5,000m in Tokyo, however, could change everything, and further solidify Canada as an emerging athletics powerhouse.

Last Thursday, Mohammed Ahmed and Justyn Knight finished third and fifth at the Golden Gala Diamond League 5,000m in Florence, Italy. Their respective times of 12:50.12 and 12:51.93 rank them third and fifth in the world this year (Ahmed’s 12:47.20 from July 2020 is also faster than any result achieved across the world in 2021.) As it stands, Ahmed and Knight are Canada’s best one-two punch in a single track event - Brandon McBride and Marco Arop in the 800m is the only comparable duo.

Ahmed, 30, is now a perennial world-class contender who has competed internationally since 2010, but who is still missing an Olympic medal on his resume. He trains with the world-renowned Nike Bowerman Track Club, and is entering the “seasoned veteran” stage of his career. Knight is a raw, uber-talented 24-year-old from Toronto who still raced in basketball shorts by grade 11, and who blossomed into an NCAA champion in Syracuse barely three years ago. He is a Raptors fan who likes to tweets rap lyrics, and who doesn’t mind crouching on top of all-white Reebok shoes for Instagram. Both aspire to be the best in the world and, yes, both are incredibly nice (almost as nice as Gillis!)

Ahmed and Knight could both finish in the top five in Tokyo. One or two of them could even win a medal, maybe even win the race. If any of those things happen, Canada would gain clout it never had in the world of distance running. Only Kenya, Ethiopia and the United States have placed two athletes in the top five of an Olympic 5,000m final since 2000.

To be sure, top-five finishes for both Ahmed and Knight in the same race – let alone two medals – is a tall order. They will have to contend with world record holder Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda (who they both beat in Italy), Norwegian wunderkind Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Ethiopian powerhouses Selemon Barega, Yomif Kejelcha and Hagos Gebrhiwet, and several others.

Nonetheless, Canada has never had two such high-ranking contenders in one single distance event. And no matter their eventual results, it’s thrilling to know that when we will turn on the live stream in August, we can bet on both our countrymen to have fantastic races – and not just “for Canadians.”

New Canadians with Olympic standard

Men's 5,000m - Standard: 13:13.50

Luc Bruchet (Vancouver, BC) - Time: 13:12.56

Two Last Strides

1. Too little too late for incoming Olympic hopefuls

Late last week, the Calgary Stampede was granted a quarantine exemption to bring international competitors across the border, prompting further questions about why athletes invited to Olympic trials cannot benefit from a similar privilege. Other athlete groups, like NHL players, have been exempt from the standard quarantine protocol by the Canadian Government for weeks.

Athletes who competed in the US in early June and who wish to race Canadian Olympic trials have no choice but to miss most of Athletics Canada’s Tokyo qualifier series because of the quarantine. The nine-event series is designed to help athletes meet Olympic qualifying standards, and runs between June 4 and 29 across Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C.

On top of making them ineligible for those races, the mandatory quarantine is hampering Olympic hopefuls’ plans by forcing them to train isolated from partners and facilities in critical, late season weeks.

2. Coolsaet calls it a career... kind of

Three-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet, who personifies excellence in distance running since the early 2000s, announced his retirement from competitive marathoning last week. He represented Canada in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympics, and is currently the fifth fastest Canadian marathoner of all-time with a personal best of 2:10:29.

The 41-year-old told The Hamilton Spectator last week “It’s done, I’m ready to move on, and I’m content with my Olympic career. I could dwell on not making this Olympics but I’m not really that upset. Looking back, I never knew if I’d make any Olympics let alone two of them. It’s not a cry-because-it’s-over, it’s more have-a-smile because it all did happen."

Coolsaet is not stepping away from competitive running. On the contrary, he is now eyeing ultramarathons. Reid, for your fantastic marathoning career, I'm sending you all my virtual congratulations. And for your burgeoning career in the ultras, a virtual tub of Body Glide.

'Til next week,

Alex (Twitter / Instagram / Youtube)