It was the race to place – six women vying for three spots on the Canadian Olympic track and field team bound for London. Everyone knew it was going to be close.
What no one knew was how controversial it would be.
After a false start and a second runner standing up before the gun started, the top-three finishers in the 100-metre hurdles were not the ones who, as of Saturday night, had made their way onto the team.
The order of finish had heptathlete Jessica Zelinka finishing a surprising first at 12.68 seconds. Second was Phylicia George and third was Perdita Fleicien. Olympic bronze medalist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep was a disappointing sixth after hitting a hurdle and veering outside her lane.
But in the end, once appeals had been heard and others planned, the three women listed as qualified for London were Zelinka, George and Nikkita Holder. That, however, was open to change since Felicien and Lopes-Schliep were both planning to appeal to an independent Athletics Canada committee.
How did all this happen?
Felicien was tagged with a false start, which technically means a runner is out of the event. She told the race officials she was running under protest and came in third. After the race, she told the race jury there had been too many distractions and that the starter didn’t do enough to quiet the crowd.
The appeal was heard and denied.
“It’s one of those things. You never see yourself false-starting, and to feel that happen was devastating,” said Felicien. “I didn’t feel the starter had good control of the crowd. It’s a race of nerves, a race of milliseconds. Someone claps; you hear the sound … No excuses, my fault.”
Asked how she would then frame her appeal to Athletics Canada, Felicien acknowledged she didn’t know. “I’ve never had to do this before. I guess I’ll find out tonight ... It’s obviously not the result I wanted.”
Before Felicien’s appeal with the race officials was turned down, Lopes-Schliep said she would “definitely like to appeal to get on the team” based on her performances as the nation’s most consistent women’s hurdler this season. Athletics Canada was scheduled to meet Saturday night to determine which athletes will be on the Olympic track and field team to be named Sunday.
“I’m disappointed,” Lopes-Schliep said after the race. “Unfortunately I hit a hurdle really hard. I wasn’t able to recover … Unfortunately, the hurdles got the best of me.”
While Zelinka’s first-place finish was beyond dispute, it also came with a touch of drama. Having won the heptathlon on Thursday, Zelinka ran two hurdles races Saturday – the semis and the final – and showed she could more than hold her own. The debate was whether Zelinka would agree to run the hurdles in London, which come two days after the heptathlon competition ends.
In the end, rather than give up her hurdles spot and open the door to the fourth-place finisher, Angela Whyte, Zelinka announced she would run the hurdles at the Olympics.
“She doesn’t have a chance to win a medal in the hurdles,” Zelinka’s coach Les Gramantik said, who then quickly added, “But then I’ve been wrong before.”
Gramantik admitted he wasn’t sure Zelinka could run two strong races in one day “against some of the best in the world” only to be happily proven wrong.
Zelinka, who set a Canadian record in the heptathlon with 6,599 points, insisted no one pressured her into making her decision, although Gramantik said she should do the hurdles in London.
“It’s a horrible situation,” Zelinka said before she made her call. “There was no good outcome, except I ran a super good time.”