Canadian track short on star power

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:20 PM ET

The queue at the Tim Hortons across from the Varsity Centre was incredible. The people were lined right out to Bloor St.

Given I had a few minutes before one of the nice ladies took my order, I decided to give the boss a ring and fill him in on the just-completed track and field press conference.

When I hung up, the dude standing in front of me wheeled around and asked if, indeed, the Canadian track and field championships were being held at the University of Toronto this week.

“They are,” I said, deciding that, in the spirit of civic goodwill, not to give him crap for eavesdropping.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “In years past, I would have known that.”

“Well,” I replied, still being shockingly friendly. “It’s probably because there are no big-name sprinters on the team any more.”

The guy agreed, and then proceeded to give me his life story: How he’s a hot-shot photographer and how he knows the Sun’s Dean of Speed, Dean McNulty, and how the guy giving out the Caribana credentials down the street was reluctant to give him a media pass.

“What does he know about Caribana?” the dude said. “He’s white.”

Thankfully, before the Rev. Al Sharpton was called in, one of the Tim Horton ladies waved him over and we parted company.

But the guy had a point.

There really is no buzz surrounding this year’s championships, even though it’s being held in Toronto, the media capital of Canada.

But the problem isn’t new. For many years, track flourished (field was always an afterthought) because Canada had some of the world’s best performers in some of the highest profile events, particularly the sprints ... Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Atlee Mahorn and, before that, Ben Johnson. And then there was Michael Smith in the decathlon and the men’s 4x100 metre relay team. Even borderline fans followed the sport.

But now, it feels like the same old, same old.

Canada’s two best track athletes are former world champion Perdita Felicien and Olympic medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who compete in the women’s 100-metre hurdles. And, while both are great, it’s hardly an event that electrifies the public.

Sure, there have been some other Canadian athletes who have broken through at the world stage in recent years — Gary Reed’s 800-metre silver at the 2007 world championships and Tyler Christopher’s bronze at the 400 at the 2005 worlds — but those results have been few and far between.

Because track and field is not hockey, or even basketball, the national team really needs a male athlete to break through in a “major” event for the sport to regain some of its lustre in this country.

Even P&P, as the two hurdlers are known, see it that way.

“I was on Off The Record yesterday and Michael Landsberg asked his staff if anyone could name a third Canadian track and field athlete. And there were blank stares,” said Felicien, the 2003 world queen. “They said me and Priscilla and they were talking about Ben Johnson, and I’m like: ‘Okay, that’s going in the wrong direction.’ The two of us are the names and the faces (of the track team) but I would love to see more names and I would love to share the stage with them.”

Lopes-Schliep concurred.

“The more athletes, the more support, the more love, the more backing we get,” she said.

National team coach Alex Gardiner feels there is an athlete set to take that next step and “be the man” on the Canadian squad, shot putter Dylan Armstrong of Kamloops, B.C.

“Other than Christian Cantwell, he’s beaten everybody in the world this year, repeatedly. His numbers are steady and they’re high,” said Gardiner. “And when he knocks off Cantwell, and he’s pledging to do that in the next two years, then he’s really our man. As it stands now, he’s headed for that podium in London, for sure.”

Armstrong, 27, does seem ready to break through for a medal at a worlds or Olympics. But it’s shot put. Not the 100. Still, Gardiner points out that the top 10 Canadians in the 100 metres are 25 or younger, so perhaps there is hope for the 2012 London Olympics. Unfortunately, none of those men has run under 10 seconds and only Calgary’s Sam Effah (10.06) has broken the 10.10 barrier this year. The good news is, Effah is only 21. If he keeps progressing, the track team will finally get another world-class sprinter. Which would be a godsend for the sport.


Photos