The need for speed

The Canadian sprint program has disappeared from the radar, and that does not sit right with...

The Canadian sprint program has disappeared from the radar, and that does not sit right with Donovan Bailey. (QMI Agency file)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:47 AM ET

The numbers don't lie, and they're ugly.

The Canadian track-and-field program used to produce some of the top sprinters in the world. Now, the sprint program has disappeared from the radar.

Which is a shame, because in this part of the world, interest in track and field crashes and burns if there is no success in the sprint events.

In the days of Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Ben Johnson (before the positive tests) and the men's 4x100-metre relay team, the sport received prominent play in the media and there was genuine interest between Olympic Games.

Now, other than the occasional mention of one of Canada's top female hurdlers, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and Perdita Felicien, the sport has pretty well disappeared from the public's consciousness.

And that does not sit right with Bailey, the 1996 Olympic champion and former 100-metre world-record holder.

"They've got 14 year olds here who could make the national team in Canada," said Bailey, during a trip to Jamaica. "You could take the top six high school sprinters here and they would beat the Canadian team."

He's probably not far off.

Last season, the best time for a Canadian in the men's 100 metres at any IAAF-sanctioned competition was a 10.22, posted by Bryan Barnett of Edmonton. That time did not crack the world top 100. The fastest 200 by a Canadian last season was a 20.45 by Gavin Smellie of Toronto, which was the 45th best time.

So far this season, Sam Effah of Calgary has posted the fastest 100, a 10.28, good enough for 34th in the world, while's Barnett's 20.71 is the swiftest 200, 26th best in the world.

What's even more disturbing for track fans (the few that are left) is that a Canadian has not qualified for the 100-metre final at a world championships since 1999, when Surin finished second in a time of 9.84.

Bailey said it is urgent for the sprint program to again rise to prominence, otherwise track and field will become even more of an afterthought.

"I love the fact that we have three girls in the top 20 in the world in hurdles. But no one is going to pay attention (to track and field) unless it's the marquee event," he said. "(Olympic sprint champion) Usain Bolt is the biggest brand in the world for a reason."

Never afraid to speak his mind, Bailey believes that the talent is there, but said a lack of leadership and unwillingness of the young sprinters to do everything needed to succeed has taken its toll. After he rose to prominence, Bailey sought out his own coach (Dan Pfaff) and often trained away from the national team.

He said having someone with his background back in the sport would inspire young sprinters to work harder.

"Before I came in, there was a sense of mediocrity and since I've retired, there is still a sense of mediocrity. It's like, 'Let's go out and have fun,' " he said.

The answer, said Bailey, or at least one of the solutions, is for someone, to bring him into the fold in some capacity.

The Oakville native said he has talked to Joanne Mortimore, the CEO of Athletics Canada, and Own the Podium guru Alex Baumann, but hasn't heard back.

SUCCESS

"I've been trying to get involved. But I guess my success doesn't matter," he said, acknowledging that his outspokenness may scare people off.

"Listen, I'm the right guy for the job. I'm available," he said. "But I'm not going to settle for a mediocre job. I would be there for success."

National team head coach Alex Gardiner insists all is not lost, pointing out that Canada has a group of young sprinters (22-25), including 24-year-old Jared Connaughton who has run a 10.15, who will break out in the next 2-3 years with times "minimally" around the 10.10 mark.

"If we use Bruny and Donovan as the benchmark, they ran their best times at the ages of 32 (Bruny 9.84) and 29 (Donovan 9.84)," said Gardiner. "Bruny's quest for 9.84 was realized after 12 hard years, where he never gave up. Donovan's road was a little shorter. But Donovan was a special competitor.

"(Sprint coach) Glenroy Gilbert and I would agree that the new wave of sprinters are now just learning what it takes, and still have a long road ahead. Let's see what 2012 looks like. We expect some of these guys will be around in 2016 as well when they are approaching 30 years old."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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