The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but for elite Canadian athletes, there’s been an extra challenge: qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic Games. With race cancellations and travel restrictions, opportunities to compete have been limited, and as the Games approach, the window to qualify is getting smaller and smaller. As Olympic 800m runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu said in an interview with the Canadian Press, “Bottom line: I need races. And I need them to be fast.” But while athletes in other countries have had opportunities to race, athletes training in Canada have been left watching on the sidelines.
Before the pandemic began, World Athletics put new qualifying rules in place that required athletes to either hit a very difficult qualifying standard or be ranked in the top 48 through a complex points system calculated over each athlete’s five best major competitions. In order to do either of these things, athletes need the opportunity to compete.
The problem is that restrictions in Canada have made it nearly impossible to host elite track meets, so athletes must travel outside the country to race. If they do that, they face a two-week quarantine when they get home, so while their competitors continue to train, they are forced to sit idly for 14 days. Canadian athletes are now scrambling to qualify for the games, and while Athletics Canada had hoped to send a roster of 60 athletes to Tokyo, only 24 have achieved qualifying standards so far.
Some of Canada’s best track athletes, who would be some of our top performers at the Games, have yet to qualify due to a lack of races, including Bishop-Nriagu.
“The easiest route is just run the standard and get it over with,” Bishop-Nriagu said. “But it’s not easy given our travel circumstances. It’s for the betterment of everybody’s health that we have these measures in place, but it just makes it difficult to [qualify].”
For athletes training in Canada, the Olympic trials from June 24 to 27 in Montreal are one of the few opportunities to either achieve standard or get a top-48 ranking. Ordinarily, all Canadian athletes wishing to compete at the Games would be required to race at the trials, but Athletics Canada recently removed that stipulation to cut down on travel for athletes who are living and training outside Canada (like Gabriela Debues-Stafford, Mohammed Ahmed and Andre DeGrasse).
For athletes training in Canada, there is a ton of pressure, and Canadian Olympic Committee chief sport officer Eric Myles has said we are going to see some hard, heartbreaking stories.
“We are trying as much as possible to prevent unfairness issues, but it’s not simple. The virus is not making it simple,” he said.
Canada’s Paralympic athletes face even greater challenges because in order to compete at the Paralympic Games, they must be classified. In order to be classified, they must race at a classification event, which have been few and far between. Currently, Athletics Canada is lobbying for changes to the stringent qualifying standards to create a more even playing field for the Olympics.
“We can only pick people who are qualified within the system, we can’t go beyond that,” said Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high-performance director. “We’ll send as many as we can. If there’s no flexibility, if they don’t change the system, and the borders remain closed in Canada, then I think we’ll have a smaller team than we would have had.”
With elite track meets happening in the U.S., Australia and other countries, many Canadian athletes have been forced to sit on the sidelines while their competition continues to race and earn spots on their respective Olympic teams. While Olympic organizers have said the Games will go on no matter what, we may see a much smaller contingent of Canadian athletes representing our country this time around.