Sunday, 11 March 2012

Raising the Bar

There has been some recent debate surrounding Dylan Wykes: Should he be allowed in the 2012 London Olympic marathon given his recent quality, but not qualifying, performances? Recall his October 2011 6th place finish of 2:12:56 at the Toronto Marathon and his 2:12:39 victory in the 2010 California International Marathon. This is not meant as a rebuttal to anything I have read. My own opinion is that he should go (joining his teammates Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis) if Athletics Canada had the willingness to let the top three Canadians that run under 2:15 attend. Actually this is not so much my opinion as a logical fact since he is the third fastest Canadian running under 2:15. But AC cannot budge at this late stage, so the only decision that can be made now is by Dylan's legs (assuming he has another go at it). Regardless of the facts of the current situation, it bears taking in some perspective as set by other countries in the last Olympics. Are we Canadians in tandem with what others do, or are we being unduly harsh for no obvious gain? I regret the answer leans towards the latter, as I explain below.

What did other countries do in the last Men's Olympic marathon? I looked at the Beijing results, and found the following countries had sent more than one athlete: Lesotho (3), Ukraine (3), Brazil (3), Kenya (3), Japan (3), USA (3), Ethiopia (3), Morocco (3), Finland (2), Russia (3), Eritria (3), Spain (3), Tanzania (3), Mexico (3), China (3), Italy (3), South Africa (3), South Korea (3), Guatemala (2), and possibly others, but I got tired counting. Wait... North Korea also sent three guys. And Nepal sent a guy with a 2:23 PB (set at the Beijing Olympics). Great Britain sent Dan Robinson, who's PB is 2:12:14. Libya sent Ali Zaidi with a 2:13:33 PB. Hem Bunting from Cambodia, whose road to the Olympics was as challenging as anyone's, has a PB of 2:25. I think you get the point; most countries send as many athletes as they can, by whatever means.

The men's marathon is the last Olympic event to be run, hence an especially symbolic one. The medals are given out at the closing ceremonies. It's understandable that Canada wants to represent it well. The Olympic motto is (in Latin) "Faster, Higher, Stronger" but it is equally about worldwide participation, as shown even in the flag's design:
The emblem chosen to illustrate and represent the world Congress of 1914...: five intertwined rings in different colours - blue, yellow, black, green, and red - are placed on the white field of the paper. These five rings represent the five parts of the world which now are won over to Olympism and willing to accept healthy competition.

Diversity is at the heart of the Olympics, which separates it from the IAAF World Championships or Diamond League. We are not short of exclusive events. Recall the 'parade of nations' is a huge part of -and possible point to- the opening ceremony. The Olympic motto is meant for one's internal striving, not to be served as a rejection notice, i.e. "sorry, you were not fast/high/strong enough".

Of course not everyone can join the parade; typically each country sends their best until the field roster is deemed 'full', with a maximum of three individuals per country per event, imposed precisely to maximize the number of countries without preventing a (perhaps deserved) medal sweep. The good news is that it is not hard to squeeze a few extra (thousand) people into a marathon, as I've noticed after running a few myself. With 42.2 kilometers of real-estate, there's room for a three-membered contingency from every country. This is not true for every event; the 5k and 10k run this way would be a catastrophe, hence stringent AC standards here would be redundant. But the standards are comparatively relaxed for the marathon in order for a maximum of countries to participate. This includes those that might not normally qualify for -or afford- the income-elite Dressage or sailing events.

The rules as set by Athletics Canada imply our athletes are special, but not in a flattering way. By not sending a guy who can run under 2:13 when many other countries do sends the message that they too ought to have kept their guys home as well. Or perhaps it is fine for them, but our standards are higher, even more condescending. A third answer might be that we only send 'winners' to the Olympics. I sympathize with anyone who might call us snobs.

High-income countries appeared to have comparatively fewer runners in the 2008 marathon. Australia, for example, sent only one person. Why might this divide exist? Do first-world nations, those without many competitive marathoners, worry the relaxed standards are a free pass to the games? In Canada's case this is not a marathon-specific phobia, as our self-imposed austerity shows in other Olympic sports too, like biathlon, where we also want to send only 'winning' athletes.

That Canada can afford to ship three people across the pond to race in London is without question. Adding extra hurdles beyond the necessary ones sends the message to our would-be marathoners (and other athletes too) that our best are not good enough. It would be a nice touch if Canada also refused to give out gold medals at nationals if the times were too slow. But seriously (am I not?), regarding the qualifying time AC chose, 2:11:29, such an awkward cut-off of makes the decision an obviously bureaucratic one. Was rounding to the closest minute out of the question?

Athletics Canada is being unfair. But not to Dylan, who if born Kenyan his Olympic chances would be even worse, and if born in Cambodia would be better. Such is life. Instead they are being unfair to their own eventual interests. AC has picked a battle with itself and Dylan is caught in the middle. None of this matters since we cannot change rules midstream, of course, and Dylan Wykes will (probably) not go to the Olympics. Were another country be willing to adopt Dylan during his Olympic bid that's his choice and an entirely different matter. The last man to run for Canada in an Olympic marathon was Peter Fonseca who qualified in a time of 2:11:34. Before him Peter Maher ran in 1992 in a qualifying time of 2:11:46. Doing the math, it would appear Canada has moved the goal post hoping we would do even better. It is questionable how well this has worked.

An aside: Some refreshing Olympic spirit


  1. Graydon, good post overall.
    On the subject of Athletics Canada and fairness: you state that 2:11:29 was a "bureaucratic" decision and suggest that AC has "moved the goal post" by comparing with a time run in 1992. Others have done the same, sometimes comparing with the Drayton record. We can disagree with the necessity to add an A+ standard, but to pretend staff at AC didn't arrive at this time at least partially based on recent World rankings is a bit much. The rest of the world has 'moved the goal post' and we need to stop looking back 20+ years.

    To be clear: I feel that both the A+ standard and the characterization of AC is unfair.

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for reading and commenting. At first this post was going to be about Olympic Standards in general, but it's hard to compare between sports so I focused on the marathon. I paused when writing the word 'bureaucratic', but kept it because I found it to be accurate. It's clear that if A.C. wanted to send three guys they could (that is, the Olympic body would be fine with it), hence it was an internalized, arbitrary decision. The word acts as a pejorative here, yes, but what alternative description could be used? You can argue the standard both ways (it's lenient/stringent), hence it was ultimately arbitrary.

      For instance, to base the decision on 2011 world rankings, it would appear Kenya holds 20 of the top 20 fastest times. Reid did not make the top 250 fastest times of the year (he was 252nd I think), therefore if competitive means close to a top 10, 50, or even 100 ranking then no Canadian should race (minding the gap: Conversely, if you argue that the 2:11:29 cutoff is lenient (but still keeps us in the running so to speak) then I refer to the US marathon trials from 1968 onwards (, where if that cutoff were used, Americans would not have sent a soul in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, or 2004. I know a lot of those guys could have, and did, run faster at other points, but that's the danger of imposing time constraints at a distance run twice per year.

      AC's goal should be to maximize our presence at the Olympics if only for its own interests. Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. This is one of those times.

  2. Hi Graydon :) I may be wrong, but I don't think it is clear that AC could "send three guys" and that the Canadian Olympic Committee (or other multi-sport bodies that AC has to answer to for funding) would be fine with the process that led to that decision. That's not to suggest that the Marathon is being treated the same as the 100m in Canada. What I mean is that, I don't believe AC can simply send as many athletes as possible to the 2012 Olympic Games.

    1. Hi again Steve. I think we're on the exact same page. You are quite correct that AC has budget limitations. I wrote Canada, not AC, can afford to send three guys (if we can send an entire hockey team...). The A+ standard seems like a way to stay on budget while sugar-coating it to Canadians by telling them that "Canada only wants to send the best". Your comments have inspired a new post: I'll show the host country always does better than the year before or after; hence lowering standards wins more medals! In the same vein, I'll compare our entry standards with USA and Australia (both are less stringent on paper). Stay tuned in a week or so.