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Tough road to Athens for Canada's athletes

When Canada came home with just 14 medals from Sydney, fans were sorely disappointed. The national Olympic committee decided it was time for a change.
By Emily Bowers (Reuters) | PTI, Toronto
UPDATED ON AUG 09, 2004 10:16 PM IST

When Canada came home with just 14 medals from Sydney, fans were sorely disappointed. The national Olympic committee decided it was time for a change.

Tough standards were introduced, meaning athletes heading to the Athens Games had to prove they were in the top 12 in the world in their sport or had achieved an equivalent performance.

The new regime -- and the failure to qualify in several team sports including basketball and soccer -- mean just 266 athletes will represent Canada, the slimmest national squad since 1980.

While the team is small, hopes are high.

"We believe we have a team that have all demonstrated that ... they are certainly the strongest Summer Olympic team we've ever sent to the Games," said Mark Lowry, executive director of sport for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC).

However, many athletes both on and off the Athens-bound team have criticised the new standards which cover individual sports where athletes race against the clock.

For Nicole Stevenson, Athens has been out of reach since she learned that to qualify she would have to break a national marathon record that has stood for almost 20 years.

"I knew that it would take impossible training, or some supplements that I'm not willing to take, in order to leap ahead," said the 30-year-old.

Her time of two hours 33 minutes 37 seconds in January was enough to make her Canada's fastest female marathoner. But she fell short of the top 12 standard of 2:28:14.

The United States' three entrants would not have met Canada's standard with their qualifying times.

'DISCOURAGING' STANDARD

Canada has never been a powerhouse at the Summer Games, earning 22 medals in Atlanta in 1996 and 18 in Barcelona in 1992. In 1976, when the Games were hosted by Montreal, Canada became the first host country not to win a gold medal.

It's not clear how many Canadians will miss out on Athens because of the new regulations.

In athletics, Canada is sending 23 competitors, just two fewer than the group sent to the world championships in 2003, where slightly less taxing qualifying rules were used. Even those with a secure berth have spoken out against the rule.

"It's discouraging," Perdita Felicien, the 100-metre hurdles world champion, told reporters at last month's national track and field trials.

"If you look at the criteria and you see what you're faced with, you think, 'why should I even try?'."

Felicien, who was on Canada's 2000 team but failed to medal, said that had the new standard been in place, she would not have been eligible for Sydney.

For some, the Olympic experience is nothing short of overwhelming and many perform better at their second Games.

Opponents of the new standards are worried that the top 12 criteria will make it impossible for up-and-coming athletes to get vital experience of their first Games.

Since 1980, Canada had followed a qualifying mark of top 16 or top half if there were fewer than 32 competitors in an event.

Before Canada announced a boycott of the Moscow Games, they named 211 athletes. In 2000, Canada sent 311 athletes.

Lowry said the COC's board of directors that decided the move to top 12 was made up of members of Canada's sport federations.

"It is a sport community decision, it's not five or six technical sport staff of the COC making that call," he said.

In 2010, Canada will host the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The COC decided to let winter athletes use international qualifying standards for Turin 2006, giving them a chance to gain Olympic experience before they compete in their own country where Canada will be expected to make a strong showing.

It's the same experience critics say summer athletes are now being denied. The COC has pledged to look at the issue of qualifying standards, as well as everything else about Athens, once the Games are through.

"This will be analysed on a sport-by-sport, event-by-event, athlete-by-athlete basis," Lowry said.

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