Runners highlight flaws in Athletics Canada's 'harsh' funding program

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Five 1,500-metre runners are on Athletics Canada's program of financially supported athletes through next September but not Quebec City's Charles Philibert-Thiboutot, pictured. However, he is the only one to have already met the qualifying standard in the event for next year's track and field world championships. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images/File - image credit)
Five 1,500-metre runners are on Athletics Canada's program of financially supported athletes through next September but not Quebec City's Charles Philibert-Thiboutot, pictured. However, he is the only one to have already met the qualifying standard in the event for next year's track and field world championships. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images/File - image credit)

Charles Philibert-Thiboutot ran personal-best times in four outdoor events this year — his first full and healthy season in recent memory — and was convinced he earned his way back on Athletics Canada's program of funded athletes.

The middle-distance runner believed his spot was further secured on July 25 when he finished under the three-minute 35-second automatic qualifying standard in the 1,500 metres for next year's world championships.

But on Sept. 24, Philibert-Thiboutot was not among 79 able-bodied track and field athletes formally announced to the Canadian Athletics Performance Pathway enhanced funding program, while five younger 1,500 runners without the 2022 standard were added.

"Since 1990, only myself and five other [1,500] athletes have qualified for a major championship," the Quebec City native said, pleading his case in a recent interview with CBC Sports. "And only six of 34 athletes to break 3:40 since then made it to [a world championship]. Those facts were disregarded [by AC].

"You have athletes running 3:37, 3:38 and 3:39 [on the program]. Eight times I've run under Cameron [Proceviat's] PB [of 3:37.31]. When you look at the facts and statistics, I don't see how they could justify me not being on the program."

Athletics Canada high performance director Simon Nathan, while stating he wouldn't comment on specific athletes, told CBC Sports the CAPP program "is for athletes we think have the realistic advantage to [place] top eight in the next six to eight years at a world championships or Olympics.

"It's a strong, harsh system and there's no hiding from that, but I think it's fair [and] equitable. We take the athletes showing the most potential."

Thirty of the 79 athletes on the program through Sept. 30, 2022 are at the development level and considered by Athletics Canada as having the potential for a top-eight performance in six to eight years.

Some of them are deemed eligible for a monthly allowance of $1,060 under the Athlete Assistance Program (carding) from Sport Canada, a branch of the federal government that sends money to AC annually from Canadian taxpayers "to enhance opportunities for all Canadians to participate and excel in sport."

Carding status monthly allowance

  • Senior card (SR1, SR2, SR) $1,765

  • Senior card Injury/Illness (SRI) $1,765

  • First-year senior card (C1) $1,060

  • Development card (D) $1,060

Source: Athletics Canada

But each year, Philibert-Thiboutot estimated, five to 10 athletes don't show the required progress on the development side and never reappear on the CAPP program while he and other established athletes, including 2020 Olympians, are "consciously discarded."

The remaining 49 athletes on the CAPP program are comprised of senior athletes (SR) who have made Olympic appearances and those designated as senior 1 (SR1) — those who have achieved a top-eight finish at worlds or the Olympics like Andre De Grasse, Damian Warner, Moh Ahmed, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and Pierce LePage.

Luc Bruchet, fellow distance runner Kate Van Buskirk and Philibert-Thiboutot are part of a group of experienced athletes who failed to return to the CAPP program for this funding cycle. While they have yet to medal at worlds or the Olympics, they delivered a career-best season in 2021.

"Cutting veteran athletes creates a big gap in performance from people like [2020 Olympic medallists] Moh Ahmed, Andre De Grasse and Damian Warner to the development athletes," Philibert-Thiboutot said. "The reason development athletes get better is because they have people [like me, Luc and Kate] to chase."

Submitted by Canada Running Series
Submitted by Canada Running Series

"What irritates me is the medal-or-nothing mentality," added Bruchet, who was most recently on the CAPP program in 2018 before breaking his left foot that year and in 2019. "[Athletics Canada] is focused on a few athletes with medal potential and others who have shown a glimpse. How does that help build a competitive program?"

This year, the 30-year-old took 12 seconds off his PB in the 5,000 to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and demonstrated improved speed and endurance in running his best times in the 1,500, mile, 5K and 10K.

"I looked into an appeal [which costs $250] but [AC] twists its narrative to fit its extremely subjective policies," the part-time physical education and health teacher in Vancouver said in a phone interview.

"I think they want athletes improving, not only in their main event. Do I need to start throwing the javelin as well?"

Philibert-Thiboutot, who was among a handful of athletes to have their appeal rejected by the Athletics Canada commissioner, cited section 2.2 of the CAPP criteria to help explain the challenge athletes face to build a strong case.

It references judging an athlete's Realistic Capacity to progress within the sport and states it is "a subjective exercise based on a combination of the available evidence, expert opinion, objective performance data and statistical modelling." Running a PB, progress, resilience, performance readiness, skills, etc. is also among the objective data considered.

"Because of the subjectivity clause, there is no way for us [athletes] to prove that the [selection] panel did not follow [its own] policies," said Philibert-Thiboutot, "and gives them every right to pick whoever they want, even if stats and objective information goes against their choices."

AC on Preisner debut marathon: 'decent'

Ben Preisner, an up-and-coming marathoner from Milton, Ont., is not supported through CAPP despite clocking 2:10:17 in his event debut at The Marathon Project last December in Arizona and a 46th-place finish as top Canadian in this year's men's Olympic marathon (he had a pre-race rank around 80th).

In his unsuccessful appeal, the 25-year-old said he argued the average debut marathon by the top eight runners from each major championship since 2001 is 2:11:01 at an age of 24.7.

"The average progression from debut to PB of those runners was three per cent in 4.4 years, so if I progressed as the average, I am well within striking distance to be [inside] the top eight within four to five years," Preisner, who works part-time as a data analyst when he isn't training, said in an emailed statement to CBC Sports. "However, the [AC selection committee] suggested my debut marathon was 'decent.'"

Preisner, who is preparing to compete in the Valencia Marathon on Dec. 5, also explained to Athletics Canada an objective way to determine which athletes to select is to rank them based on the proximity of their PB to the organization's own "Top 8" consideration standard outlined in its criteria.

To support the selection process, Nathan said Athletics Canada uses "analytics" based on data collected by Canadian Tire, a sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee. It includes performance data (competition results) of the top eight athletes in each event from 10 world championships and four Olympics since 2001.

Based on percentage from the standard, Preisner determined he would top the list of "International" athletes currently on CAPP who AC deems four to six years from a top-eight finish (see chart below).

Submitted by Ben Preisner
Submitted by Ben Preisner

"I believed, and still do, that Athletics Canada either held me to a higher standard for their 'criteria' or did not use the same criteria for the athletes selected at the International level," said Preisner, who's living in Vancouver and working remotely on his master's degree in artificial intelligence from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"I was never given an explanation on how other athletes were selected ahead of me other than each is considered independently and has a unique case. The process needs to be objective and transparent to not foster distrust with the governing body of our sport."

Philibert-Thiboutot, who has received messages of support from non-track athletes "who have been victims of discretionary and subjective clauses," said there would need to be a coalition with athlete councils across all sports to attempt to make a difference at the Sport Canada level for athletes to be funded more fairly.

Van Buskirk is one of two able-bodied athlete directors with Philibert-Thiboutot on Athletics Canada's 12-member athlete council. As an unsponsored athlete who ran a debt exceeding $10,000 this year to prepare for her Olympic debut in Tokyo, she understands the athletes' concerns but feels the AC administration staff is acting in a way it feels will make Canadian athletes successful.

"I have heard the criticism from athletes about the funding system, how it works and who was included," Van Buskirk, who was last on CAPP in 2018 before experiencing injury trouble, said over the phone from Toronto. "I would hope the athlete's voice continues to be heard and these complaints and concerns by athletes are taken seriously. I think there's an openness to that."

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