2012 Olympic and Paralympic Trials re-cap

Now safely returned to Montreal, I’ve had a moment or two to reflect on the Olympic Trials experience. Even for those who were not in contention for a spot on the now-named Canadian Olympic track and field team, an Olympic year seems to bring out the best: the deepest fields, the tightest competition, the best times (distance races at altitude notwithstanding). What we saw last week in Calgary may have been the dawn of a new ear in Canadian and Quebec track. We will only know in the next year or two if the talents that have been rising will continue to do so, or flame out, their wax wings melting as they get too close to the sun.

There are four parts to this post: our club’s performances, Quebec distance runners’ performances, Olympic team selection, and issues surrounding the CBC (lack of) broadcast. Enjoy!

Montreal Endurance performances:
Our club had a modestly successful trials. On Wednesday, the first day, we came home with two medals. Ryan Noel-Hodge battled the conditions and a small field to be granted the honour of bronze medalist. Yes, it was a small field, and sure, there are probably more than two guys in Canada who can run a 10000m faster than he can (or did on the day). But if you don’t show up to race, you can’t complain. Here’s hoping the 10000m is more competitive in Moncton, and the runners who only like to race for time will be mollified.

Our second medal was equally qualified, but no less deserved.

Guillaume Ouellet took home the silver medal in the 1500 T13 category. This paralympic category is for runners with a visual impairment. In Guillaume’s case, his field of vision is only about 10 degrees wide. You and I have a field of vision of around 180 degrees. Guillaume finished second to the Canadian record holder in his category, Stu MacGregor (MacGregor also holds the record in the 400m and 800m). In a tactical race, on the track with the able-bodied (or able-eyed in this case) men’s 1500m qualifiers, the two T13 runners waited patiently at the back for the first two laps. With 800m to go, Guillaume made a move to the front that broke up the pack. Despite racing against guys with PBs 15-20sec faster than his, the slow pace of the first two laps meant that he was still in the mix at this stage. It might have been more prudent against the rest of the field to wait even longer, but knowing he was racing against Stu and only Stu, G had to make a move, and try to put some space between himself and a guy who has 50sec 400m speed. It was almost enough, but the defending champ edged him out by less than a second.

Still, Ouellet is a star on the rise. He missed the London Elite standard by less than half a second at the Ian Hume meet. At that meet, he did beat MacGregor. It’s only a matter of time for Guillaume. Courted by the Paralympic group, and national team administrators, he’s got a year to reload and make the standards for the 2013 World Championships. We’re quite honoured to have such a talented young man in our midst.

On Friday, Ryan’s second race of the meet did not go so well. He forgot his spikes, and the shoes he wore overheated his feet (a problem he’s had all summer). Knowing he was well out of reach of his top 8 goal, and the 10000m weighing in his legs, he dropped out of the 5000m race after 2 miles. He would probably not say so, but having learned that his beloved dog Hunter had died that day was likely an additional emotional load that could not be overcome in the heat. Normally I do not accept DNFs, but in this case, the load was too great. It’s just as well as Ryan has plans to run a couple more fast times this summer, so he’ll have a little less recovery to do now.

Quebec distance running performances:
On the whole, Quebec’s representation in the distance events was quite good.

In the women’s 800m Lemlem took the title, but no Olympic spot, as she had not run the A+ standard this season. Karine Belleau-Belliveau made the final and acquitted herself reasonably well in the sit-and-kick race. Annie Leblanc was the fastest non-qualifier, which is not the best place to be in, but considering she is off to NACAC championships this week, and will then embark on a collegiate career with the Oregon Ducks, it seems as though she should be one to watch for 2016.

In the men’s 1500m, Tommy Lecours took the only qualifying spot available in a very tactical race, but did not make it past the next round. Charles Philibert-Thiboutot and Stephane Colle made the final, Colle scraping through in the final meters of his semi, out-leaning Allan Brett to take the spot by .22 seconds. In that final, Philibert ran valiantly, pushing the pace, staying with the lead group even as they broke from the pack, and he improved on his finish at last year’s trials to take the 7th spot. He will join Leblanc at the NACAC championships next week as well.

The women’s 1500 had a few more spots open in qualifying, so the Quebec girls took the top two of the six available, as Melanie Hughes lead most of the way, ceding her spot to Joannie Roy at the finish. Former McGill Martlet Brittany Therrien was the 3rd qualifier, running for Victoria. In the semi-final, Roy ran a personal best time in a very aggressive race, and was the lone Quebecoise to make the final. Hughes and Arianne Raby did not make the cut. In the final, the top six cleared themselves of the field early, and Joannie finished mid-second-pack, in 10th, but considering she was the only one of the finalists to have run three races in three days, this has to be seen as a solid performance.

The best performance in a distance race by a Quebecer would be Alex Genest’s victory in the steeplechase, which will send him to London. And he did it on his birthday, too. Congrats, Alex!

Olympic Trials selection:
In terms of the rest of the meet, and the Olympic Team selection, there was excitement and heartbreak, as might be be expected. The big story, as usual, was the women’s 100m hurdles.

The 5th ranked hurdler in the world, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, finished 5th in the final (moving up from 6th after the other media favourite, Perdita Felicien, was DQed for a false start), and did not make the team. Meanwhile her teammates Phylicia George and Nikita Holder made their first Olympic teams, George even doubling up and winning the 100m.

Jessica Zelkina won the hurdles after setting a Canadian record in the heptathlon two days before. This may seem an indictment of our pure hurdlers, but I think the two false starts played to Zelinka’s advantage. Sports psychologists talk about the gold zone and the green zone. These zones represent different head spaces, and an athlete’s ability to move between them, to focus in, and to relax at will, is a key skill for dealing with stress at a major championship. It makes sense that a combined-events athlete like Zelinka would have this skill down pat: she has to zone in and out of seven different events in two days. So a couple false starts are not going to distract her.

The other athletes are world class, too, so they should be good at this as well, but I did notice something. After Perdita false started, Priscilla showed a bit too much excitement: she jumped and clapped her hands. This could be seen as just a way of clearing her head, of getting re-focused, but I think it was a sign she was too focused on Perdita, and not focused enough on her own race. At the next start, Holder flinched, and Priscilla did, too. Then, going down the track, Priscilla hit a hurdle. This is why the hurdles are so exciting to watch: anything can happen. She showed great focus to get back on track (you can see it in the head-on video), but it wasn’t enough.

Broadcast issues:
But I don’t want to focus too much on those two. This is the problem with the media coverage of track. Too much focus on a couple of athletes, in order to create stories the general public will buy. It seems sometimes this is done at the expense of accuracy and is an injustice to some of the great stories. Every event has a back-story, a rivalry, tension, excitement and performance worth watching.

On Friday, there was an uproar on Twitter because the CBC livestream started after the 1500m finals. Fans of track who could not make it to Calgary would not be able to see the race live. Only some heroic live tweets saved the day! (ha! If only…)

Athletics Canada’s Twitter responded well to the criticism, asking what people would rather have, live tv coverage of some events, or live stream of the entire meet. They said the decision of what to air live on tv was the CBC’s. Why? Who at the CBC is better placed than someone at AC to decide what events would be most exciting? Surely not Michael Smith who didn’t even know that the Trials were using electronic blocks (this was announced to the stadium on Wednesday, but since he didn’t show up until halfway through the meet, I guess he wouldn’t have known). I think they picked him because he was a decathlete, and so knew a bit about a greater number of events. Cheaper than hiring more people with actual knowledge. Geoff Gowan, we miss you.

The problem with CBC’s coverage of the trials is less their selection of events, than their treatment of the events they do cover. Perhaps there are union or production or cost related reasons why an entire track and field meet can’t be put on tv, but there is no reason why the coverage that does make it on should be catered to the general public, rather than to a track-specific audience. I firmly believe that you won’t win new viewers to track by talking down to them. This is true of sports media across the board, not just the CBC, by the way. It seems as though Flotrack is the only media “outlet” who asks questions people want to hear, instead of the inane “how much does this mean to you” you get from the so-called professionals. Cater the broadcast to “trackies” and it will be a more interesting show. That will bring in new viewers. People don’t watch track because the broadcast is boring, not because track is boring.

Television in general is being replaced by online viewing, so perhaps it is only a matter of time. I’d rather the CBC or NBC or whoever say, we don’t care about track, we aren’t going to broadcast it at all, than have them hoard the rights to events they aren’t even going to show, and butcher the commentary.

Anyway, congrats to all the athletes who competed! Just because the CBC doesn’t think your performances are worthy to show on tv does not mean they are not!