Canada’s distance runners at the Olympics: a review

That was fun! By all accounts, the distance running portion of the Canadian Olympic Track and Field team in London had one of the best Games in years. Certainly there were some disappointments, but that probably has more to do with raised expectations than actual poor performance. The distance group is setting up nicely for Rio. Here is a recap of each athlete’s work, in a rough order of success.

1. Cam Levins.

Cam Levins has to be the star of the Games for the distance squad. First, he finished 11th in the 10000m, the top finish by any Canadian distance runner. He was with the lead pack until the final two laps, at which time the international calibre and experience of the field showed itself. They out-Cam-ed Cam, as Levins’ patented devastating kick was nowhere to be found. The race had been back and forth, with splits as slow as 74 seconds and as fast as 64 throughout the race. That’s how the big dogs shake the young pups loose. But Levins wouldn’t go quietly, and he took down more than a couple of those experienced competitors. To get into the upper-echelon, he’ll need more work dealing with all those pace changes. Still, the performance of the Games for Canadian distance running.

And he wasn’t done. Running, we now know, a little bit under the weather, a couple days later in the 5000m heats, Levins managed to PB and qualify for the final. It may be this race, though only a qualifier, is more impressive than his 10000m. The 5000m final though, saw the illness catch up with him, and though a slow early pace allowed him to stay close (everyone was close), a final mile under 4min, and a final lap under 53 by Mo Farah was much too much. Levins ended up 14th, the second best distance performance, in what was not his best race. Considering his strength has been a thundering finish, it seems only a matter of time before he develops and calibrates it for international championship racing.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 8…Medal threat?

2. The Marathoners.

I hate to lump them all together, because each one had a fine race, even Coolsaet, who bonked in the last 2k. But the close team finish (Wykes 20th, Gillis 22nd, Coolsaet 27th) allowed the team to rank an unoffical 3rd behind Kenya and Brazil, if such stats were kept. That is kind of cool. The question has to be asked: would this have been possible without rigourous standards? Can’t say, really. But surely the experience of Rotterdam added some measure of confidence to Wykes’ game, such that he knew he could be Canada’s top marathoner on the day. The times of course were nothing to write home about, which is the norm for the Olympics (which is also why it’s pointless to compare the performances of the women who didn’t make it to the final results).

Considering all three sound like they will be back for Rio, and Simon Bairu is probably gearing up for another go soon, and Robbie Watson is now Wykes’ training partner in Vancouver, and Matt Loiselle is racing quite well lately…well, there are lots of marathon dudes to choose from for Rio.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 16.

3. Geoff Harris.

The 800m runner from Halifax took it out in his heat and made the semi-finals with a PB, and in the end finished 16th. For a young man who made the games on the Rising Star criteria, this bodes well. Considering the way the 800m final went down (one World Record, one World Junior record, three National Records, and 7 PBs), the gulf between Geoff and the podium may seem far, but that final also shows that if you get in the right race, you can run a great time. This Olympics was about experience for Harris, and he took advantage.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 12, possible finalist.

4. Alex Genest.
Our lone Quebec representative missed out on the final of the steeple by .51 seconds. He still ran within 3 seconds of his PB and ran a SB when he needed it most. It was just a little short. But for Genest, this was his first experience at the Games, and to get so close will only fuel him more for next time. Steeplechasers hang around (ask Joel Bourgeois). Genest will be in Rio, and maybe he’ll have his buddy Chris Winter with him.

Ready for Rio Level: Finalist.

5. Hillary Stellingwerf
Hillary suffered much the same fate as Genest, missing the final by only .1 seconds. She did at least have a second round of racing, and in both races she ran within 1 sec of her PB. her strength in the heat was, as she put it, being able to “get a lane” and stick with it. She took the last auto-qualifier spot to the semis. In the semis, she ran a similar race from a tactical point of view, but may have held onto that lane a fraction of a second too long. With 200 to go there was an opening, and she hesitated before taking it. In the final lap of an Olympic qualifier, it’s hard to make these decisions quickly. This wasn’t bad tactics or poor racing, this was just being a hair off. .1 seconds for a very experienced athlete is very very close. And considering the suspicions swirling around some of the medalists, it may be something entirely chemical that kept Hilary out of the final. Cakir was the winner of Stellingwerf’s semi.

Ready for Rio Level: Finalist, if she decides to keep it up.

6. Mo Ahmed
Lost in the Levins buzz was a very good performance from Mohammed Ahmed, who was also with the pack most of the way, and who battled through the surges for not quite as long. Still, 18th place out of 29 starters and ahead of name-brand runners like Tegenkamp (19th) Estrada (21st) and Kiprop (DNF) is a good day at the office for Canada’s Mo.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 16.

7. Jessica Smith
Smith ran as well as one can expect for a 23-year-old in her first Olympic Games. She managed to get lucky and win a kick in a slow race to get to the semis, but in the next round, the women were too fast. Still, good experience for next time.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 16.

8. Nicole Sifuentes
Sifuentes made it to the semi finals, but her section was run quite fast, and the 4:02 required to make the final out of her semi was 2 seconds faster than her PB run earlier this year. That’s the draw, unfortunately.

Ready for Rio Level: Top 16.

9. Sheila Reid
Reid was a late addition to the team, based on an appeal and Rising Star criteria. She ran only 4 seconds off her personal best in a valiant effort to make the women’s 5000m final. She was the lone “long-distance” representative for Canadian women. She acquitted herself as expected. No more, no less. Good experience for next time for this 23-year-old.

Ready for Rio Level: Finalist.

10. Melissa Bishop
Much like Smith, Bishop was a young runner at her first games, and any lessons learned are valuable. I had a long back and forth on Twitter about whether it is ok to criticise this performance, and I will post elsewhere why I think it is so. In any case, not making it out of the heats with a 2:09 is, even accounting for youth and lessons learned, below expectations. That said, you don’t fake a 1:59, and another year of racing at that level will surely see Bishop last a round or two in Moscow. Maybe more if they get the drug cheats out (but that’s another story).

Ready for Rio Level: Top 16.

11. Nathan Brannen
A fall in the semi cost Brannen his spot in the final. He looked like he was going to be good to get there, as he was in good position in a pretty quick race. Hard to know if he would have gotten through, but certainly the expectation for him was to make the final and finish as well as possible. Top 8 would not have been unreasonable. What makes this hurt even more was from how far back (no pun intended) he came. Once the young stud and heir apparent to Kevin Sullivan, Brannen suffered a back injury and had to go through a very long and difficult rehab process. This was truly his comeback Games. 30 years old now, he may or may not be around for Rio. But Sullivan raced the 2008 Games at 34 and was 8th in the semi-final*edit*. Hopefully it is not over yet for Nathan Brannen.

Ready for Rio Level: Finalist.

Missing events:
Women’s Steeplechase, Women’s 10000m, Women’s marathon. Hopefully this new wave of Canadian distance runners will cross gender lines and some of the ladies will make the standards. Yes, there were two possibly capable marathoners left off the list, but it seems to me the standards did their job and those who did race at the Games were put in a position to succeed, relative to their experience and abilities. If this was Canada’s best Games since Seoul, and by most accounts it was, then Rio looks like it could continue the upward trend.