Some athletes have waited four years for their shot at this summer’s Olympic Games. Others have waited for more than a decade. But with COVID-19 putting a wrench into an already tricky Olympic qualifying period, many Canadian athletes are scrambling to find a race that will not only put them in a position to win an Olympic medal, but just to get a chance to compete at this summer’s Tokyo Games.
“It’s been an unbelievably tricky time, but also a serious test of grit, resolve and group support,” says coach Jason Kerr with the University of Guelph and the Royal City Athletics Club. “The current environment tests you at every level; ‘Are you sure this is that important to you?’ What I’m seeing from our athletes—and maybe this isn’t surprising—but we’re seeing incredible determination and resilience to keep fighting.”
For a Canadian runner to compete in the summer Olympics, they need to hit the Olympic standard and also accrue enough qualifying points to participate in their event. Since different events around the world offer different point structures, and the current travel restrictions have made it exceedingly difficult for Canadians to race in Europe, points have become difficult to earn. Meanwhile, a series of races put on by Athletics Canada were scheduled across the country to help athletes improve their worldwide ranking, but the pandemic has already postponed events in Ottawa, Toronto and Guelph. [A win at a Canadian championship could help a budding athlete punch a direct ticket to the Olympics, like Trevor Hofbauer and Dayna Pidhoresky did in the 2019 marathon at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon; eliminating a Canadian track championship shuts down a sure-fire Olympic opportunity.]
“Most Canadian would-be Olympic qualifiers are currently in the States, chasing races and chasing points,” says Dave Korell, the Category Manager/ Performance CANADA, New Balance Athletics, adding that once an athlete hits the Olympic standard time, the top three Canadians will go to the Games. “The athletes have until June 30 to qualify for the Olympic team. Which adds another variable to these proceedings because the Games begin in July.”
On Monday, Athletics Canada will reach a decision if they’ll hold Olympic trials in Montreal between June 24-June 27. Kerr says, given quarantine times needed to travel between countries, many of his athletes are currently in the United States hunting races, especially in Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. Meanwhile, Canadians running in more competitive American heats lose out on the opportunity to earn victory points in European events. The same time in Florida isn’t worth as much as a victory in Poland or France. The competition in North America is stronger and a win, and its accompanying points, is harder to earn.
“Every Canadian track & field athlete is scrounging their every penny to try and qualify and remember, this is all towards an Olympic Games that may or may not happen,” says Korell, adding that this is the time for all Canadian runners and run fans to root on their Canadian heroes. “You see these kids in AirBnBs in Florida and Texas, just giving it their all in the face of uncertainty—it’s tough not to feel inspired.”
For athletes like Gabriella Stafford, Andrea Seccafien and countless others, including Julie-Anne Staehli, whose thrilling finish Sunday night put her well beneath the Olympic standard but wouldn’t weigh the odds of her competing at the Olympics given the current number of variables, the next few months leading into the Olympics are pivotal. However, speaking with the athletes, their coaches and sponsors, one thing is certain: whatever the obstacles, the Canadian athletes are leaving everything out there and giving it their all.
“There’s never been an easier time to make excuses,” says Kerr. “We’ve chosen to take calculated risks and give it everything we’ve got. Through all of the challenges and uncertainty, this still has the possibility of being a very unique and exciting Olympic experience for these athletes.”