On Russia, Rio and Racing: John Halvorsen Handicaps the Olympic Games

    John Halvorsen, centre, in red shorts, could’ve had the world record in the 10,000m if he only doped.

    The Rio Olympics are now just two weeks away and there’s tremendous buzz circling their arrival. Russians and doping. Disease and mosquitos. And oh yeah, Canadians in pursuit of their medals. John Halvorsen, race director of the Ottawa Race Weekend, competed in the 1988 and 1992 summer Olympics and knows most of Canada’s top runners well. We asked him to handicap the action and put iRunNation in our top runner’s shoes.

    Q) As a former Olympian, what’s going through the mind of the Canadian Olympic athletes right now? 

    A) Nervous excitement. It depends a little on if it’s your first Olympic experience or even your first international experience, but at no other event do you feel so under the public eye than at the games.  You have the media plus your whole supports structure—family, coaches, club mates and sponsors.   Most are also going through their final preparations to be in the best shape they can be as well we planning their trip.

    For the most part it’s all about staying calm and focusing on why you are there. You need to prepare mentally so you visualize that this is like any other race and you follow the pre-race plan that has worked for you in the past as best you can.  At the same time you need to be adaptable since everything is different at the games as your plan may not be possible due to security, space you are given, timing of when you have to move into call rooms and so on.

    Q) If you were racing in Rio, how nervous would you be about the conditions? 

    A) At the games you are quite isolated in the village since it is a bit of a security compound.  Most people don’t realize this.  The services on site are also typically very good and the athletes know to be careful, say with food they’re not used to. So in the village I don’t see a problem. At the training centres or competition sites it’s also quite secure and isolated. Now I think for some sports this would be different than track and field. Some sports may have smaller villages closer to their competition sites and some may compete in questionable conditions—we have all heard of the places where the triathlon swimming will occur.  Then there is the famous Zika virus which is definitely a problem, but I think the probabilities are quite low and even then for most it will not be a problem.

    Q) Would you go? 

    A) Definitely yes.

    Q) The Russian doping scandal now seems pretty apparent. Top officials must have known what was happening. What should be done about the Russian athletes? 

    A) My view is the team should be banned.  This is the kind of doping violation we often talked about almost jokingly saying it could not be this bad in the post cold war era, but clearly it was.  A team punishment is quite serious but we need the IAAF & IOC to take a stance or international sports is at the brink of irrelevance.  Unfortunately this may impact athletes in Russia who perhaps are clean all though it appears this is not just a sports administrator problem, it is also a cultural issue.

    Q) Is it just Russia, or is doping widespread? What can be or should be done to address this problem? 

    A) My fear is this is much more widespread than Russia. In Russia it looks to be state sponsored while I think in other parts it is maybe not as blatant but still part of their practices. This extends in to the west as well where we see suspected pockets of coaches and athletes. In terms of what to do I think WADA needs to continue to push the agenda of clean sports. I think in most western countries WADA and regional bodies like CCES in Canada has control of where the athletes are and can actually do a lot of out of competition testing whereas in other regions it is unfortunately more difficult. There is also an educational element.  Finally WADA unfortunately need to stay on top or even ahead of developments in medicine so they can actually test for what is being done.  This is a difficult tasks since the cheaters look for benefits in any new medical development, even in gene therapy, some which for no test exists.

    Q) What does doping do for runners? Was it widespread in your day or something you worry about at the Ottawa Marathon?

    A) Depending on what is used the benefits can range from pure physical increase in strength or stamina (numbers of over 10% or even 20% increase in performance metrics has been reported although I think it becomes less in well trained athletes), to mental benefits like improved well being and aggression, as well as to hide the use of banned substances you may be taking. In my time we certainly heard about it in distance running. In explosive events like sprints and throws we knew it was happening as people like Ben Johnson got caught but few distance people were caught. This has thankfully improved and now distance athletes are getting caught.  As a former athlete it certainly is frustrating to see what is happening and it does make you wonder who did what back then, or even now.

    Q) What do you mean?

    A) If I take my best 10,000m time of 27:43 and add on a 5.2% improvement I would have the world record today which is 26:17. If I consider the world record when I was running I would ‘only’ need an improvement of about half of that. So it makes me wonder at times where I really stand as more and more revelations come to light.

    Q) And what about at your race? Is there cause for concern?

    A) No. As an IAAF Gold label event we must test several athletes and we are very happy to do so.  This is the role we can play in the current WADA program. We support in competition testing at our event and look at a potential positive as success in weeding out the bad apples and not as a negative on us.    Another interesting discussion is should we let any formerly caught athletes who have served their suspension into our race? My personal view is I would support lifetime bans but don’t feel we should implement it until WADA/IAAF/IOC does.

    Q) Let’s switch gears and get serious: can our runners win gold? 

    A) I’m excited to see how the Canadians can do. We have some strong medal contenders in Andre De Grasse (100m/200m) as well as Melissa Bishop (800m). Melissa has been running really well recently so I hope she can get a medal. Gold will be very difficult as Caster Semenya is now back and running really well. Of course Caster Semenya’s participation will likely also be a point of discussion unfortunately but a fascinating story to follow.

    I think those are the main medal contenders on the running side but I hope to see several top 12’s out of the team, not just in running but also field events.  Watch for pole vault, high jump to name two, but it is always fantastic to watch the surprises that inevitably happen whether on the running or the field side.

    Q) What would have to happen for Reid to win? For Krista? 

    A) I think for Reid, Krista, Eric or Lanni to win is a long shot in the marathon but medal times are often not as fast as in the larger marathons including Ottawa. They would need to run smart and be a little lucky with having their best-ever day while a few others don’t. In any case we should be very proud to have such a strong Canadian contingent of distance runners (5000m and over) in the Olympics.   Especially considering the doping control system we have and evidence now suggest others don’t.

    Q) Did you understand the controversy with Athletics Canada regarding Lanni not being able to run the marathon? Do you think they made the right decision in allowing her to run? 

    A) First of all I’m not exactly sure if the controversy was real or not.  In any case, yes I think they made the right decision to let her run. These things are also much more complex than most people recognize and are likely driven by strong influence of Sports Canada and Own the Podium which set ‘performance metrics’ on the administrators.  I also think Athletics Canada has moved in a hugely positive manner to (mostly) use the IAAF standards for selection and which I believe over time will only strengthen the sport in Canada.

    Q) How likely is it that she can medal in both events? 

    A) I think it is unlikely she will medal in either event but she met the standards and should be allowed to run if she is top 3 in Canada. Our sport need heroes for the next generation to look up to and to say “I can beat her.”  This is the role Lanni, Krista, Eric, Reid and the entire Olympic Track and Field team will play over the next four years. Whether they medal or not is too me not a measure of success.  They are already successful runners and success at the Olympics is to me based on having a good race given the course, conditions and reasonable expectations.  We should also not lose sight of the fact that Athletics is the worlds most competitive sport with more nations participating and the easiest to participate in.  Everybody runs!

    Q) Lastly, can you share with us your favourite Olympic story. Either one of yours or one that you saw or just one involving Canadian athletes that makes you inspired? 

    A) To me it’s when my room mate from Barcelona 1992, Vebjørn Rodal, went and took the Gold in the mens 800m in Atlanta 1996.  My plan was always to be in Atlanta so it was bitter to be at home with a cast on my leg after my second achilles surgery, but seeing him win that race was something special. He has a great personality and ran with incredible guts. I also think he had the best expression of “I can’t believe I just did that’ on his face after.