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Athletics Canada updates Olympic qualifying process ahead of Tokyo Games

With just a month to go until the Canadian Olympic Trials, AC has made a big change to its qualification criteria

Photo by: Instagram/athleticscanada

With the Summer Games just under two months away and the qualification window for track athletes closing at the end of June, Canadian Olympic hopefuls are working to squeeze in any final races to bolster their chances of being named to Team Canada. Dates circled on the calendar of many Canadian athletes are June 24 to 27, which is when the Olympic Trials are set to take place in Montreal. A recent change in qualifying criteria from Athletics Canada (AC), though, has some athletes reeling, as officials announced that a win at the trials is no longer a guarantee that an athlete will be selected to the Olympic team. 

Before AC made this announcement, the qualification process at the Canadian Olympic Trials was simple: win your event in Olympic-standard time and you were automatically on the team. This is the way AC has operated for a while, but the pandemic and ever-changing competition and athletics landscape forced officials to reconsider qualification rules ahead of the Tokyo Games. 

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“AC removed this criterion with the challenges of people coming home during COVID,” says Kate Van Buskirk, who sits on the AC board as the female athlete director. (In addition to her role with AC, Van Buskirk is also an Olympic hopeful, but she recused herself from the vote on the Olympic qualification criteria, as participating in the process could have been viewed as a conflict of interest. Acting as an athlete proxy, retired Canadian Olympic race walker Iñaki Gómez replaced Van Buskirk in the vote.) 

Van Buskirk notes that racing at the Olympic Trials was not mandatory for anyone looking to compete at the Games, but this automatic qualification opportunity was an incentive to return home and run. 

A shot from the women’s 5000m final at the Athletics Canada 2016 Track and Field Trials at Foote Field in Edmonton.

But with travel restrictions and a two-week quarantine still in place for any Canadians coming home (many Canadian athletes have been training and competing in the U.S. and Europe, where races are still being held), AC realized that it was not reasonable to expect athletes to forfeit valuable training time in order to race at the Canadian Trials, and so it dropped the automatic qualification rule entirely. This does not, however, nullify the trials, Van Buskirk says, pointing to two reasons in particular:

“It’s still a high-level competition where you can run Olympic standard,” she says. “And it’s a World Athletics points meet, so if you don’t hit standard, you can gain more points to better your chances at qualifying for the Games.” (If athletes can’t run Olympic standard, they can still make the team headed to Tokyo if they accumulate enough WA points, which are awarded with every performance.) 

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While this news is positive for athletes currently training outside Canada who have already hit Olympic standard, it came as a crushing blow to anyone still at home who was banking on qualifying at the trials. They can still do so, of course, but without an automatic spot on the Canadian team, certain athletes may have to not only beat Olympic standard, but beat times set by their compatriots.

Mohammed Ahmed
Canada’s Moh Ahmed has qualified for the Games in the 5,000m and 10,000m. Photo: Claus Andersen/Athletics Canada

For example, in the women’s 5,000m, five Canadian athletes (including Van Buskirk) have run under the Olympic standard of 15:10.00, but nations can only send three male and three female athletes per event to Tokyo. This means that any woman looking to race the 5,000m at the Olympic Trials would likely have to run at least the third-fastest time among Canadian women in the past two years (which is how long the qualification window has been open) to qualify, as a win in Olympic-standard time no longer guarantees a ticket to Tokyo.

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Even if an athlete does run the third-fastest qualifying time, their spot is still not guaranteed, as the final decision on who goes to Tokyo and who stays home is up to AC. 

“The party line is that these decisions are very difficult, and there’s always going to be some athletes who are disadvantaged by them,” Van Buskirk says. “AC is trying to make the decision that is predominantly focused on the health and safety of their athletes, and the second focus would be to send the best possible team to the Olympics.” 

The Olympic qualification window closes on June 29, and the Canadian Trials will be the last opportunity for athletes to run qualifying times. The trials will be held in Montreal from June 24 to 27, and AC has announced that the entire event will be streamed for free on athleticscanada.tv.