Monday, July 02, 2012

Seven: the number of runners at the men's Olympic Trials 10k and the number of living Prime Ministers

At the Canadian Olympic Trials 10k, seven men and four women ran in two separate 10,000-metre races. There were a total of 11 runners in both races, and if you count all the finishers in the 5,000 and 10,000, you end up with a grand total of 32 runners who ran. The times weren't much to write home about. The winning times in the 5,000 were 14:34 and 16:15, while the winning times in the 10,000 were 30:49 and 35:18. Just three women finished the women's 10,000.

If you look online, you'll find excuses like the difficulty of the Olympic standards, the altitude in Calgary (about 3500 feet), or the slow track, but consider that you would probably get faster distance runners at any well-promoted road race than you did at this particular meet, which is a national championship even if those who finish in the top three do not go on to the Olympics.

At the Kenyan Olympic Trials, held at a higher altitude in Nairobi (about 5400 feet), nine women ran under 33 minutes. Just three men managed to do this in Calgary, and one of them isn't even a citizen. It's not that Canada doesn't have some very good 10,000-metre runners, including Trials winner Mohammed Ahmed, who ran 27:34 earlier this year. It's that the national championships evidently don't mean anything since virtually none of the best runners show up.

The marathon is doing very well and the middle distances are always strong, but while America can have qualifying rounds in the 5k, Canada doesn't even have enough people to run the race to make it look all that different from a workout. There is something clearly wrong here, but the chances are that if anyone even noticed, they would simply shrug and be happy that Cam Levins ran 13:18 and 27:23 this year, but not notice that he was able to win a national championship by running 14:34, a time that might not even win the Ontario high school meet (the IAAF scoring tables list 14:34 as equivalent to an 8:30 3k, this year's winning time was 8:22).

There is something that America is doing right but most of the Western world, Canada included, is doing wrong when it comes to running on the track. True, Canada has a mini-resurgence in the marathon, but we're celebrating times that Canadians ran almost 40 years ago. The runners doing this are aware, and I think they're doubtless capable of faster times, with the runners to follow hopefully capable of still faster times in a few years. That doesn't mask the problem and it doesn't address the problem of how, for the craze surrounding high school times, rankings, championships and trips to the World Youth or World Junior championships, almost nobody seems to run after the age of 22 or 23, at least not with the single-minded devotion needed to compete at the world-class level.

In a month's time, we just might see Cam Levins finish in the top 10 in the men's 10,000, while the marathoners would do well to finish in the top 20 after recording 25th and 33rd-place finishes at Berlin in 2009. However, this won't solve the problems of facing the sport domestically, particularly on the track. I don't know why it is that Americans will show up to run national championships at any distance, though I suspect that money might have something to do with it, along with the chicken-and-egg issue of competition. Nobody shows up because there isn't any competition, and there isn't any competition because nobody shows up.

In that sense, Leslie Sexton, this year's Canadian women's 10,000-metre champion, deserves a heap of applause for, as one message board poster put it, supposedly ducking the competition in the 5,000 to run 25 laps with just three other women. Sexton is one of the few who can put her feet, if not her money, where her mouth is, writing to that same message board critic that she would have no leg to stand on when it came to bemoaning a lack of participation in the sport if she didn't participate herself.

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