07/16/2012 05:56 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian Track Team Hard-pressed To Reach Olympic Goal

Predicting sport is a mug’s game. It’s the unpredictability that makes it exciting. But come August 3, when the track and field program begins at the Olympic Games, the 45 athletes Canada is sending to London will come under intense scrutiny.

Athletics Canada, the sport’s governing body in this country, has boldly predicted the team will win three medals at these Games. But after 100-metre hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep’s catastrophic performance at the Canadian trials — she hit a hurdle and finished a non-qualifying fifth — surely the optimism must be tempered.

Alex Gardiner, Athletics Canada’s head coach, believes that other athletes can pick up the slack. Future funding from Sport Canada depends on it.

“[Three medals] is still the forecast,” he says. “But it’s a different mix of athletes who may be achieving that.

“We’re all familiar now with the outcome of the women’s 100-metre hurdles [at the Canadian trials]. It was certainly nothing any of us could have imagined, but when you have six hurdlers who have [met and Olympic] “A” standard, and who are relatively close to each other at this time of year in their preparation, and in their abilities, anything can happen.”

Predict the Games: How many medals will Canada win in Athletics?

Pressure on Armstrong

Lopes-Schliep brought Canada its only medal in athletics at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. She earned the bronze in China, then followed up with a silver at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. This year has seen her returning from time off to give birth to her daughter. Canada could have benefited from her experience at these Games.

In the two Olympics before Beijing — Athens 2004 and Sydney 2000 — there were no Canadians on the medal podium in athletics. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete at this level as more than 200 nations make athletics a priority. Many third-world countries are producing stars.

At last year’s world championships in Daegu, South Korea, countries such as Grenada, Botswana, Belarus, Ukraine, New Zealand, Poland and Brazil were among the 20 that finished ahead of Canada in the medal table.

Shot putter Dylan Armstrong was our sole medal winner in Daegu, so naturally a medal is expected of him in London. That’s a whole lot of pressure to bear. Better to be in the role of the underdog like his training partner Justin Rodhe, who has thrown a world-class 21.11 metres this season.

Armstrong has retreated into a cocoon, surfacing for Diamond League competitions then slipping out of sight immediately afterwards to avoid the media. He went into the Daegu championships with a world-leading throw of 22.21m. His best this season is 21.50m, though he’s been consistent.

“We still think Dylan is on track and can do what he needs to do,” Gardner says. “We think Jessica Zelinka has strengthened her fortunes — just an absolutely marvelous performance in Calgary in both the heptathlon and the [100m] hurdles.

“We still think something can come out of the hurdles.”

Hurdles hopefuls

Gardner points to Phylicia George, who finished seventh at last year’s world championships, as somebody who can rise to the occasion and sneak in for a medal. Nikkita Holder was also a finalist in Daegu, finishing sixth, and has beaten some big names this season. Fingers crossed, they can again make the final, where anything can happen.

It would be a stunning achievement if Zelinka, in her first season of serious 100m hurdles competition, were to earn a medal in the event, despite her quick times and her stunning victory over a stacked field at the Canadian trials over Canada Day weekend. At the 2011 world championships, it took a time of 12.47 seconds to make the podium. In 2009, it was 12.55. Zelinka’s personal best is 12.68, which she set in her trials victory on June 30.

But other than world champion Sally Pearson of Australia, who is in a class apart from the field, the event appears wide open. And Canada could have three athletes in the final.

Still, the heptathlon likely represents Zelinka’s best opportunity to win a medal if everything goes right and she can score in the range of 6,600-7,700 points.

Relay team looks to rebound

Curiously, Gardner touts a pair of high jumpers — Mike Mason and Derek Drouin — as having the potential to sneak in for a medal. The latter has cleared 2.31m on three separate occasions this year, and a height of 2.32m earned a bronze in Daegu last year for Trevor Barry of the Bahamas. But Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim finished with the same 2.32m.

A bucket-load of cash has been spent over the years preparing the Canadian men’s 4x100m relay team for the Olympics — training camps in warm-weather climes, races in Europe, always with the hope of achieving a medal. Four years ago, the relay program yielded a sixth-place finish in Beijing. The team was fifth at the 2009 world championships. Last year, they failed to make the world championship final. But Gardner still sees potential for a medal with this year’s squad.

Canadian 100m champion Justyn Warner shares the optimism, but is frustrated with the process of team selection.

“I don’t even want to talk about the relay,” the outspoken Warner says. “There’s too much politics behind it. They pick people that they want, people who shouldn’t be on the team.

“I know that we can get on the podium. I believe in the group of guys. It’s just that [coach Glenroy Gilbert] has to put in the right people and we can do that.”

“They want us to put the relay as our top priority. My focus is the 100m. I would rather medal in the 100m than get a medal in the 4x100m. Being realistic, I think we can medal in the 4x100m. The 100m is a tough event.”

Brannen a dark horse in 1,500

Mohammed Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., and Cam Levins of Black Creek, B.C., will both run the 10,000m in London. Levins will also contest the 5,000. At the NCAA championships last month, he won both events for the University of Southern Utah, but he has yet to face world-class competition on the track.

A dark horse medal candidate is Nate Brannen of Cambridge, Ont., who has enjoyed an injury-free year, the first in his lengthy career. He achieved a personal-best 1,500m time of 3:34.22 in Hengelo on May 27 and believes he can run two seconds faster.

“This year, from January on, I’ve missed one workout,” he says. “There’s a lot of consistent training. My races have gone well — championship-style races, not necessarily time trial races, which have given me confidence that it’s going to be a good year.

“I have two goals. Obviously, making the final is one, but I’m not going to be happy with finishing 11th or 12th. Realistically, the top eight [is in reach]. Hopefully I can sneak up. It’s one of those years when the 1,500 is open.”

Three medals would be quite an achievement for Canada in the current competitive climate. But it’s also very possible for the team to come home empty handed while touting a number of personal best performances. Fingers crossed, we will see many sublime Canadian performances.

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