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Short on contenders, a young Canadian track squad takes strides to Rio

The Canadian athletics coaches arrayed on the dais at the Main Press Centre could not say it, of course. But the seed was nonetheless planted deftly by Alex Gardiner, Martin Goulet, Glenroy Gilbert and Les Gramantik. The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics were a backdrop to all the discussion ahead of Friday's first day of the athletics competition at the 2012 London Olympics.

Pray for Dylan, Plan for Rio is hardly a cry that sends folks rallying around the flag, but there's an element of truth to it. By supper-time in Eastern Canada, the country's best hope for a medal at Olympic Stadium – maybe in the entire Olympics – will know his fate. Shot-putter Dylan Armstrong from Kamloops, B.C., sees his final round start at 3:30 p.m. ET. After that? Miracles, baby. Miracles.

If nothing else, the crowd at Olympic Stadium should be more engaged than the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which lost some of its steam when 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang – the pride of the Chinese track system – injured his Achilles and had to pull out of his heat. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis and 5,000 and 10,000-metre specialist Mo Farah will carry the hopes of Team GB, and while the Canadians were talking about some anticipated support from ex-patriates, consider this: Monday is the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's Independence, and Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake will not lack for support from their own ex-pat community.

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Nine members of Canada's 45-member athletics team begin competing in the first day of events, including heptathlete Jessica Zelinka of London, Ont. It's the largest team Canada has sent to an Olympic since 1988 in Seoul and no less than 37 of them are first-time Olympians. Of the 45, 21 are currently ranked top three among all-time Canadians in their events. The average age is under 25.

"I've been in these Olympics cycles for a long time, and every time you get a little excited, and end up saying: 'Wow the next four years ...'," combined events coach Gramantik said, his voice trailing off as he shook his head. "You have to remember there's no guarantee that all the athletes will stay in the program. It's a challenge to keep them around, both athletically and financially and even socially.

"I know this: This is the most talented and deepest group of athletes we've had in some time."

The measuring stick for athletics success remains the sprints and hurdles. Gilbert, Canada's sprint and relay coach, calls this group "the finest," this country's had in 10 years. "Half the group are young," said Gilbert. "Half will be back in Rio." Canada's signature women's program, the 100-metres hurdles, has undergone what Gramantik referred to as a "changing of the guard," due to Perdita Felicien and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep crashing out at the Canadian trials. Zelinka will do double duty – heptathlon and hurdles – with 25-year-old Nikkita Holder from Pickering and 24-year-old Phylicia George of Scarborough rounding out the hurdles team.

What really excites Gilbert are a pair of 20-year-olds, Aaron Brown of Toronto and Akeem Haynes of Calgary.

"We don't have a sub 10-seconds guy," said Gilbert. "Maybe in two or three years we might."

Justyn Warner from Markham laid down the fastest 100-metres time among Canadian men, 10.15 seconds. Given the strength of the 100 metres, it will take a time of under 10 seconds to make the final. Warner, who is staying in the Olympic Village with Holder, his fiancée, has been working with his own coach, Desai Williams, and said on Thursday his goal remains getting into the final.

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Like the other Canadian athletes, he checked in to the Olympic village before going to Germany for Canada's athletics training camp in Kamen, collecting his credentials and getting the lay of the land while getting the "tourist" worked out. He missed the Opening Ceremonies, but that's okay.

"I'm young enough that I should get another chance," he said. That, too, could be the motto of the Canadian athletics team.

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