Simon Nathan was frustrated when he heard about track athletes travelling to the United States earlier this year to try to achieve an Olympic entry standard and/or improve their world ranking.
Similar races weren't being offered in Canada because of different restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I felt for the athletes who had to make those decisions and sacrifices," said Nathan, Athletics Canada's high-performance director. "It's not easy to decide whether to travel from an area that is safe and known [during the pandemic] into an unknown environment."
Earlier this year, Nathan began discussions with World Athletics about bringing a series of track and field events to Canada to reduce the need for athletes to travel internationally and face the mandated 14-day quarantine upon their return home.
On March 18, Athletics Canada announced its Tokyo Qualifier Series — a nine-meet series in Canada that will offer high-level competitive opportunities to Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.
The first meet is May 21 in Ottawa, with the final stop a World Athletics Continental Tour bronze level meet in Montreal on June 29, the final day for Olympic qualification.
De Grasse not competing, agent says
"In general, the feedback has been fantastic," Nathan said. "I'm hoping there's enough interest generated by this series that … we could keep this concept beyond this year to have a strong domestic season, so world championship and Olympic-level athletes don't have to rely just on travelling abroad."
The bottom line is Canadian athletes will have plenty of opportunity to gain an automatic Olympic berth or points — the amount of which will depend on placing in each event — to enhance their world ranking ahead of the June 24-27 trials in Montreal. Those ranked in the top 48 also qualify for Tokyo.
While only 24 Canadians have reached qualifying standards, Nathan is expecting the number to reach the mid-40s for individual athletes by the completion of the Tokyo Qualifier Series and settle in the mid-50s following the addition of relay runners.
Aaron Brown, the two-time defending Canadian champion in the 100 and 200 metres, told CBC Sports he would consider travelling from his Florida home to compete if any of the nine meets fit his training and race schedule. But fellow sprinter and 2016 Olympic triple medallist Andre De Grasse, who is also based in Florida, will not be part of the Tokyo Qualifier Series, his agent Brian Levine said.
Track stars Moh Ahmed, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and Justyn Knight — all of whom are based in the U.S. — are unlikely to head north to race or help pace the 800, 1,500 or 5,000 unless the mandatory 14-day quarantine is relaxed or they gain exemption from a provincial government as high-performance athletes.
"It seems a lot of athletes right now in Canada are very good at soloing races," Knight said. "I could see the top athletes training in Canada discussing ahead of time who will play [pacesetter] to help each other achieve their goals."
Pacing 'huge' in helping distance runners
Steeplechase runner Matt Hughes believes it's crucial Athletics Canada invest in "good, quality and competent" pacesetters for the distance races.
"For guys like Luc Bruchet and Kieran Lumb to hit the [13:13.50] 5K standard, [a pacer] would have to go through 3K in probably 7:54, 7:55," said Hughes, who plans to race on the Diamond League circuit in Europe in May and June after already reaching the Olympic standard in the 3,000 steeplechase and 5,000. "The guys in Canada that can hit that, and there aren't many, are currently training in the States.
"[Bruchet and Lumb] have the ability to do it but need to be pulled along and there are so many factors. It can't be too warm or too cold, you can't have wind. When these guys are flirting with the edge of their fitness, they need every little thing to line up and pacing is a huge part."
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Nathan said Athletics Canada is aware of the need and said meet directors across Canada are working to find people to fill the specialized role.
"Internally, it's a strong group [in the men's 5,000]," Nathan said, referring to Bruchet and Lumb. "It's not like you'll have one athlete running around completely isolated. Hopefully we'll have a group of athletes [pushing] each other with a pacemaker. There is some depth in the women's 100 hurdles, 800 and 1,500 and that will help."
Hughes said unlike distance runners, athletes in the throwing, jumping and sprint events have the physical ability to perform at a high level week by week.
"I think you give them good competition, good conditions and hopefully they can hit their marks," he said. "In the events where you get multiple chances to hit a mark, the cream eventually rises to the top. We have enough good athletes in those areas in Canada, they just need an opportunity."