2016 YEAR IN REVIEW
EDMONTON -- The unprecedented performance by Canada’s track and field team – six medals, including one gold – at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro came as no shock to anyone who has kept an eye on Edmonton’s athletics scene in recent years.
Both the TrackTown Classic, already a well-established fixture on the pro track circuit after just seven years, and the 2015 and ’16 Canadian Track and Field Championships have served as showcases for Canada’s emerging young talent and as launching pads for their international success.
For Canadian elite athletes, but also for a significant sampling of international performers, the Road to Rio truly did run straight through Edmonton, and it did so with panache, at that.
Add in the 2015 Panamerican Junior Athletics Championships, which featured eight record-breaking performances, and Edmonton has emerged as an authentic athletics destination, recognized by athletes, coaches, track federations and fans of the sport as a credible stop on the elite athletic circuit.
A key component of that success has been the support of the City of Edmonton. The city’s financial support and branding muscle in proclaiming Edmonton ‘TrackTown Canada’ in 2014 provided both cachet and, well, the necessary cash to carry out an ambitious game plan.
It can be fairly said that TrackTown Canada has held up its end of the bargain. Organizers have delivered a lengthy parade of high quality national and international athletes that has grown each year, since the one-day meet began as the Edmonton International Track Classic.
Over 25 Olympic medallists and World Champions like Derek Drouin, Sanya Richards-Ross, Shaunae Miller, Ashton Eaton, Brianne Theison-Eaton, Yohan Blake, Justin Gatlin, Warren Weir, Francena McCorory, Jason Richardson, LaShawn Merritt, Nick Symmonds, Wallace Spearman, Joe Kovacs, Luguelín Santos, Damian Warner, Dylan Armstrong, Shawn Barber, Perdita Felicien, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Nia Ali, Aaron Brown, Melissa Bishop, and, of course, sprinter Andre De Grasse all have pencilled Edmonton onto their seasonal calendar in recent years.
The reasons are many: it’s logistically convenient for North, South and Central American and Caribbean athletes to have a top pro meet available relatively nearby, without the time zone dislocations involved in costly travel to Europe.
The opportunity to compete against top competitors close to home is attractive. That feature has helped establish the TrackTown Classic as a key tune-up meet for Diamond League events, the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships.
That will hold true again in 2017, when the IAAF World’s – almost certainly the swan song of the incomparable Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt – will be held in London, England.
London will present another showdown between Bolt and De Grasse, who can use the TrackTown Classic as a staging area for his next crack at the three-time triple gold medallist at the Olympic Games.
Might the 2017 TrackTown Classic be a preview of a sprinting passing of the torch from Bolt to De Grasse in London? It might well provide that.
In 2015 and ’16, Edmonton served as a temporary training hub for a significant cluster of athletes, such as George, Holder, pole vaulter Shawn Barber and others, who chose to stay in Edmonton following the national championships to prepare for upcoming competitions.
That is a testament to the superb training facilities at the University of Alberta’s Foote Field. Athletes and coaches have spread that news by word of mouth, still as powerful a communication device as there is.
Along with praise for the infrastructure, athletes have consistently conveyed to their colleagues how thoughtfully and professionally they are treated on their visits to Edmonton. In short, organizers in Edmonton have gained the trust and respect of coaches and athletes at the elite level of track and field, which is crucial to the ongoing success of the events held in this city.
By extension, the City of Edmonton has amassed considerable social capital and goodwill as a result of the pleasant experiences enjoyed by the visiting athletes, over the years.
A number of these athletes now have a performance history in Edmonton, which can serve both as a reference point for their own career arc and for the enjoyment of the fans who have been lucky/savvy enough to take advantage of the opportunity to see world class performers compete in their own back yard.
Those performances have, in turn, provided traction to big-time track meets in Edmonton. The impressive spectator turnouts in 2016 for both the Olympic Trials and the TrackTown Classic are testament to that.
They have also given Edmonton a slice of ownership of the impressive, still-young careers of Canada’s top track and field stars. Edmonton may not have ‘made’ them, as it were, but it certainly has given them a significant platform on which to strut their stuff.
Here’s a sampling of some of the athletic performances that have been delivered by Canadian and international athletes at the University of Alberta’s Foote Field over the last two years:
In 2015, De Grasse won the sprint double (100 and 200 metres) at Nationals in Edmonton, winning the 100m in 9.95 seconds. Those performances presaged his winning the double at the Pan American Games in Toronto, nailing a bronze medal in the 100 metres at the World’s in Beijing. In 2016, De Grasse won the 100-metres at the Olympic Trials in 9.99 seconds. When in Edmonton, De Grasse runs sub-10-second races, which would make him a star attraction in any country. He’s among the fastest men in the world, a consistent medal threat in the marquee event of his sport and he is just 21.
In 2015, Canadian rivals Drouin, 26, and Mike Mason staged a friendly but thrilling duel in the men’s high jump at Nationals, with Drouin winning the championship on fewer misses. At the 2015 TrackTown Classic, Drouin set a meet record, winning with a clearance of 2.33 metres. That’s world class jumping.
Bishop, 28, put on a show at the 2016 Trials, winning the 800 metres in 1:59.32, claiming the national title and demonstrating the elite fitness that made her a medal contender in Rio, where the 27-year-old Eganville, Ont., native finished an agonizingly close fourth.
George, 28, and Holder, 29, are the latest in a long line of Canadian female 100-metre hurdlers, having taken the torch from the likes of Felicien, Lopes-Schliep and Edmonton’s Angela Whyte. George was a 100-metre hurdles finalist in Rio and plans to continue competing through to Tokyo in 2020. At the 2016, George, Holder and the 36-year-old Whyte all qualified for Rio.
For the pole vaulter Barber, 22, the 2015 National Championships in Edmonton, where he won his third straight Canadian title, and the TrackTown Classic, where he also won his speciality, were staging grounds for the gold medal he won as a 21-year-old in Beijing at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics. Accomplished in a discipline whose practitioners mature in their late 20’s and early 30’s, Barber has years of quality jumping ahead.
The 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Trials attracted 122 accredited media, including representatives from: CBC TV Sports; CBC Radio; Global Edmonton; CTV Edmonton; Rogers Sportsnet; the Edmonton Journal and Sun; Canadian Press; the Toronto Star; Postmedia; and TSN 1260 radio.
The total attendance for the four-day Trials was 26,756 spectators, including a single-day high of 10,852 on Saturday, 9 July, the day the men’s and women’s 100-metre sprint finals were held. Crowds of 4,057, 6,113 and 5,734 turned out at compact Foote Field on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, respectively.
That’s impressive exposure for both the sport and the City of Edmonton.
The Trials also brought an estimated 1,500 visitors to Edmonton, including 1,135 athletes (611 male; 524 female), 235 coaches; and 135 officials.
THE WAY FORWARD
Grassroots growth in sport is multi-factorial and is measured in generations, not years. The cause and effect connection is not automatic; the progress can be slow and incremental.
But sports can also undergo unexpected growth spurts, such as Canadian track and field is enjoying currently. It’s important to leverage that growth, if possible.
Following the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, the Canadian National Track and Field Championships were held in Edmonton (at Rollie Miles, adjacent to Strathcona High School) in 1977.
Canada did well at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and again at the Universiade in 1983.
But when Edmonton played host to the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Canada earned just one medal, a 1,500-metre wheelchair silver medal won by Jeff Adams.
Canada won a single medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London – a bronze earned by Drouin, the high jumper from Corunna, Ont.
But the promise of better times ahead was apparent in a number of the other 2012 results, most notably the bronze medal in the men’s 4x100-metre relay that Canada lost owing to a lane violation.
In the mid-2010s, Canada’s international track and field fortunes have spiked like never before, led by a cadre of young, gifted, articulate, media-savvy athletes.
Coincidentally, or perhaps more than coincidentally, Edmonton has emerged as a track and field destination at a time when athletics in Canada is experiencing this unprecedented growth spurt in terms of results at international events.
As a major part of the City of Edmonton’s considerable efforts to establish itself as a summer sports hub, a counterpoint to Calgary’s niche as a winter sport centre, the TrackTown Classic has gained undeniable traction with fans, sponsors and the athletics community, locally, nationally and internationally.
Playing host to the national championships for two straight years as talents like De Grasse, Bishop, Warner, Theison-Eaton, Barber, George, Mohammed Ahmed and others have blossomed provided a booster shot in terms of public interest and sponsorship, as it should.
Keeping the momentum going will be a tougher challenge in the next few years, with a single property – the TrackTown Classic – to leverage. But there is much to build on, starting with the appeal of the 2016 Olympic medallists and those, like Bishop, who strongly contended for the podium.
Continuing to attract many, if not most of this group of brand name Canadian stars to the Classic will be crucial to future growth in spectator and media interest.
As Edmontonians have seen first-hand, Canadians love to cheer for Team Canada, whether it is the women’s soccer, hockey or basketball teams, the men’s volleyball squad, or De Grasse, Bishop, Theison-Eaton, Barber and the rest.
As organizers have amply demonstrated in the seven-year history of the event, the TrackTown Classic is well-positioned to showcase that talent for years to come.
After all, in less than 12 months, it will be Down to London, as Joe Jackson once sang, for the 2017 IAAF World’s. And the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be upon us before you know it.
Edmonton can and should be a gateway to both of those events, and that’s for starters.