There’s no hardware yet for Canada’s track and field team at the Games – and there may ultimately not be – but the results through four and a half days are certainly encouraging for this underdog group.
With only one or two medals projected coming in, the young 45-member crew may be in tough to even hit those marks after shot putter Dylan Armstrong and heptathlete Jessica Zelinka both came up short.
But on Sunday and Monday, Canadian after Canadian fared well in their heats and moved onto the semi-finals or finals, with several of them putting up unexpectedly strong times and jumps.
Leading the way was a terrific performance by Halifax’s Geoff Harris in his 800-metre heat, as he finished second in the race with yet another personal best time of 1:45.97.
That mark gave him the sixth best time after all seven heats, which may mean he is able to sneak into Thursday’s final in what can be one of track’s most gruelling races.
“Speed wise, I can run with the best of them at the top end,” Harris said. “I wasn’t overly stressed that I wasn’t able to roll with them.
“Now it’s the same thing as coming into this round. I want another PB. I want to get into a good race that will take me through. You get around the best in the world and you start running times like them.”
Harris is a great story. He didn’t qualify for the Games until his final opportunity in June, where he set his previous personal best at a meet in Indianapolis.
The 25-year-old believes he can continue to keep putting up better times, which will be a must if he is going to make an impact in a final that will be at least a second faster at the bronze medal spot.
Kenya’s David Rudisha is expected to run away with the gold, as the world record holder has a personal best time of 1:41.01.
“There’s more there still,” Harris said. “That was a nice comfortable race for me... There’s definitely another gear in the tank.
“This whole season has been a surprise to a lot of people I think. So I’m just trying to keep going on that. I’ve been on this upswing and there’s no end to it in sight. So one more race or maybe two.”
The other bit of good news Monday came in the women’s 1,500 metres, where both Hilary Stellingwerff of Grand Bend, Ont., and Winnipeg’s Nicole Sifuentes qualified for Wednesday’s semi-finals.
(Of those three middle distances runners that are into the semis, Harris has the closest time to the top competitors.)
Those, however, are the longer shots. The better potential candidates for a surprise athletics medal at these Games are going to be the team’s trio of 100-metre hurdlers (Zelinka, Phylicia George and Nikkita Holder) and two high jumpers (Mike Mason and Derek Drouin), all of whom have moved on.
The three hurdlers advanced to the semi-finals after Monday’s heats and have competitive times, while both jumpers were among the top 14 to get to Tuesday’s finals and were high on Athletics Canada’s radar coming in.
Tuesday, in general, will be a big one for the team, with Harris, the hurdlers and jumpers all competing in key races that evening.
Then there’s the men’s 4x100 relay squad, which has the potential to win a bronze medal on the weekend. Canada is expected to be among those fighting for what’s left behind the powerhouse Jamaican and American teams.
Canada was sixth in the relay in Beijing, but will field an entirely different team in London that includes Justyn Warner, who ran a 10.09 in the 100 metre semi-finals on Sunday and is expected to anchor the group.
(Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessarily a must to have marquee names on the relay team in order to excel, as it’s wide open beyond the top two countries. Trinidad and Tobago and Japan both finished on the podium in 2008 after the U.S. and Great Britain made key errors in their heats and failed to make the final.)
So those are the possibilities, but it will take a little more good fortune and a pleasant surprise to get a track and field medal. The most likely scenario at this point is that Athletics Canada is shut out of a podium at these Games, which isn’t unusual, but could raise some uncomfortable questions for the team.
That’s why Armstrong’s miss was such a big one, even if he was ranked fourth or fifth in the world coming in.
Canadians have won just one track medal – Priscilla Lopes-Schliep’s bronze in women’s 100-metre hurdles in Beijing – since Donovan Bailey’s double gold in 1996, something that is quickly becoming a distant memory.