Track and Field

Track and Field, or athletics as it is sometimes called, is a composite sport encompassing discrete competitions in walking, running, hurdling, jumping (high jump, pole vault, long jump, triple jump), throwing (javelin, discus, shot, hammer) and multiple events (eg, decathalon, heptathalon). At the OLYMPIC GAMES, the sport's best-known competition, there are 42 events, 25 for men and 17 for women. More national communities compete at the Olympics in track and field than in any other sport.

A major goal of participation is the achievement of measurable improvement, the "citius, altius, fortius" of the Olympic motto. Competitors train and compete not only to surpass each other but to attain personal and group best-ever performances, or "records," which are given special status by the governing bodies in the sport, the International Amateur Athletic Federation and its Canadian affiliate, the Canadian Track and Field Association. Organizers, athletes and followers have thus imbued track and field with a purpose significantly different from that of its classical antecedent, the athletics of the ancient Olympics.


Although the ancient Greeks had the technology to measure times and distances, these results were unimportant to them - they were preoccupied by the contest - and they did not keep records. Many feel that the heady pursuit of records in activities common to most of the world's cultures is what gives track and field its widespread fascination, for it dramatizes the modern quest for scientific progress.

Athletics in Canada

While Canadians have long known about classical athletics - in 1844 a group of Montrealers staged a 2-day event they called "the Olympics" - the origins of Canadian track and field are to be found much closer to home, in the running and throwing competitions of Native peoples, the colonial athletics of British officers and civil servants, the Caledonian Games of Scottish immigrants, and the tests of strength at rural "bees" and fairs. By Confederation in 1867 highly competitive meets and match races were a regular part of the sporting scene. Perhaps the most popular event was the professional pedestrian or "go-as-you-please" race, in which competitors ran or walked to achieve a maximum distance within a fixed time, often 6 days.

In 1884, to bring some order to these various competitions, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association worked to create a national governing body, the Amateur Athletic Union. Although briefly challenged by the more liberal Amateur Athletic Federation and a professional running circuit early in the 20th century, the AAU and the CTFA, formed in 1969, have controlled the most competitive levels of the sport ever since.

With AAU control came strict amateurism - the belief in the moral superiority of participation for its own sake, without any material reward, enforced through a list of prohibitions governing eligibility - which effectively limited participation to those individuals who enjoyed the leisure and the financial means to pursue the sport on their own and those educational and social institutions (the universities, YMCAs and police athletic associations) that accepted the accompanying ideology of self-improvement. The sport's social base was restricted by gender as well.

Until the 1920s the men who controlled the sport, aided by the physicians and moralists who sought to guard female health and virtue in a patriarchal society, were successful in keeping women out on the dubious grounds that vigorous physical activity would damage their reproductive organs and was "unseemly." In the 1920s pressure from women forced the AAU to create a women's committee and the IAAF to include women's events in the Olympic Games, but the new opportunities were never equal to those enjoyed by men.

Canadian Participation in International Track and Field

Canadians have competed in every aspect of the sport with flair and distinction. Almost every generation has produced its fine sprinters. Early in the century, Hamilton's Robert KERR used his blazing start to dominate Canadian, American and British Empire competitions. He won gold and bronze medals at the 1908 Olympics in London. Calvin Bricker was a member of Canada's teams at two Olympic Games, winning the bronze medal in long jump and placed fourth in triple jump at the 1908 Olympics in London and taking the silver medal in long jump in 1912 at Stockholm, Sweden. Perhaps the greatest era of Canadian sprinting began at the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam, when Vancouver's diminutive Percy WILLIAMS won both the 100 and 200 metre sprints with his spectacular leaping finish, and Fanny ROSENFELD, Florence Bell, Ethel Smith and Myrtle Cook combined to capture the first-ever 4 x 100 metre women's relay. In the next decade Canadian sprinters won another 6 Olympic medals and 22 in the British Empire Games. These feats were not equalled until the 1960s when Vancouver's Harry JEROME tied the world record for 100 m and won Commonwealth and Pan-American championships and an Olympic bronze medal.

Canadian middle-distance runners have also excelled. Before he won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in the 2500 m steeplechase at the Paris Games of 1900, Toronto miler George ORTON had compiled a long string of championships and records; in the interwar period Montreal's Phil Edwards and Toronto's Alex Wilson brought back 7 medals from 3 Olympics; Toronto's Bill Crothers, one of the most graceful runners of all time, continued this tradition during the 1960s, winning a silver medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and dominating the 1000-yard event on the North American indoor track circuit for many years.

Canadian distance runners have generally fared better on the road than on the track. They have won Olympic (Bill Sherring in the now unrecognized 1906 Athens Games), British Empire (Harold Webster in London in 1934) and Pan-American (Andy Boychuk in Winnipeg in 1967) marathon titles and the prestigious Boston Marathon 16 times. Some of these Boston champions, such as Onondaga Tom LONGBOAT (1907), Sydney's John Miles (1926 and 1929), St-Hyacinthe's Gerard Côté (1940, 1943, 1944 and 1948), Toronto's Jerome Drayton (1977) and Montréal's Jacqueline Gareau (1980) have become legendary figures in the sport. Toronto's Rich Ferguson placed third in the famous confrontation between Britain's Roger Bannister and Australia's John Landy at the 1954 COMMONWEALTH GAMES at Vancouver - won by Bannister in a time of 3:58.8.

More than half the medals Canadians have won in international competition have come in the less popular field events. The strongest tradition has been in the high jump, where Ethel CATHERWOOD (1928), Duncan MCNAUGHTON and Eva Dawes (1932) and Greg Joy (1976) have won Olympic medals; and Debbie BRILL (1970 and 1982), one of the pioneers of the now almost-universal back-layout technique, Claude Ferrange (1978) and Milt Ottey (1982) have won Commonwealth titles. Other outstanding Canadian champions include Montréal's Étienne DESMARTEAU, who won Canada's first field event Olympic gold medal at the 1904 St Louis Games in the 56-pound weight toss, throwers Ed Coy, Dave Steen, George Puce, Jane Haist and Boris Chambul; vaulters Ed Archibald, William Happeny and Bruce Simpson; and horizontal jumpers Garfield McDonald, Cliff Bricker and Hal and Wally Brown.

In the last 20 years, the structure of Canadian track and field has been radically changed, as the rapid growth of federal and provincial programs initiated by the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act of 1961 has brought about the professionalization of coaching and administration and the recruitment of the medical and scientific communities to the goals of high performance. Previously the sport was conducted almost entirely by volunteers, who often combined the roles of coaching, officiating and administration, using their homes as offices and financing much of the activity out of their own pockets. Now the sport exhibits a formal division of labour among coaching, officiating and administration.

The heavily subsidized CTFA and its provincial affiliates enjoy permanent offices, full-time staffs and a network of paid coaches who direct and monitor athletes' training. The top athletes are no longer "amateur," as most receive state grants for living and training expenses (permitted by IAAF rules since 1974) and are eligible for money prizes and endorsement fees (permitted since 1982). Many pursue the sport full-time. These changes have meant significantly improved training and competitive opportunities and longer careers. As a result, the overall quality of Canadian performances is higher than ever before. In 1964 only 14 Canadians met the IAAF Olympic qualifying standard; in 1984, 71 did so.

Canada's poor medal showing at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (no medals in track and field) gave rise to demands for further action. In 1972 the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) and Sport Canada initiated "Game Plan," a funding partnership of the federal and provincial governments and the national sports-governing bodies, with the objective of lifting Canada into the top 10 nations by the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Game Plan would fund competition tours (such as the first Canada-US dual track meet for women in 1972) and training camps (eg, at Toronto's Fitness Institute and the National Athletic Training Camp, a converted Canadair hangar in Montreal). At the same time others, including former middle-distance runner Abigail HOFFMAN, lobbied Canada's Olympic committee to allow amateurs to train more than the prescribed 60 days every 4 years, and to be legally compensated for training expenses. Athlete assistance programs, under a "carding" system, based on performance and world ranking, were initiated and between May 1975 and the 1976 Olympics some $2.3 million was distributed to about 600 Canadian athletes for training and living expenses.

This kind of investment demanded a high return and a dispute between the COA and the CTFA over standards (distances, heights and times required to earn positions on the national team) came to a head at the Olympic track and field trials prior to the 1972 Munich Games. Consequently, 9 of Canada's best track and field athletes were cut from the team. Pole vaulter Bruce Simpson's fifth-place finish was the best by a Canadian track and field athlete at Munich.

As work got underway in Montréal for 1976, the CTFA invited Polish sprint specialist Gerard Mach to conduct clinics in 1973; soon after, he became Canada's first professional track and field coach. The CTFA then organized its own "game plan" around a technical director, Lynn Davies, and 4 national coaches: Derek Boosey (jumps and multiple events), Jean-Paul Baert (throws), Paul Poce (distance running) and Gerard Mach (sprints, hurdles and relays). Of 56 track and field athletes at the Montreal Olympics for Canada, 9 women and 5 men achieved Olympic qualifying standard, and 4 individuals, plus 3 of the 4 relay teams, achieved personal bests and Canadian records during the games. Greg Joy's high-jump silver was the only medal in track and field, and Canada placed 11th in overall team standings.

The fruits of Game Plan '76 were harvested at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, as Canadian athletes placed first overall. In athletics, gold medals were won by Boris Chambul (discus), Claude Ferrange (high jump), Carmen Ionesco (discus), Diane JONES KONIHOWSKI (pentathlon), Phil Olsen (javelin) and Bruce Simpson (pole vault); the track and field team also won 8 silver medals and 9 bronze. The harvest continued at the Pan-American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Canada placed third in team standings overall, with track and field athletes bringing home 18 medals.

In spite of the setback of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, the CTFA's philosophy of separating athletic events, begun with Game Plan, continued in the form of "event training centres" where recognized coaches could work with emerging talent: a Toronto sprint centre under coach Charlie Francis; distance-running centres under coaches Ron Bowker in Victoria and Alphonse Bernard in Winnipeg; and multiple-event centres in Saskatoon under coach-athlete Diane Jones Konihowski and in Toronto under coach Andy Higgins. Trust funds, pioneered in athletics by the CTFA and approved by the IAAF at its 1982 congress, cleared the way for amateur track and field competitors to earn and spend money legally (from corporate sponsorship, commercial endorsement or government grant) for living and training expenses, without losing amateur status.

By staging the first-ever World Track and Field Championships in 1983 at Helsinki, Finland, the IAAF signalled the return of athletics to their ancient Olympic Games prominence; for the first time since the 1972 Munich Olympics (because of the African boycott at Montréal and the American boycott at Moscow), the world's track and field best competed in 41 events. Canadians won no medals at the IAAF championships but placed seventh in the world (setting one Commonwealth and 3 Canadian records) - Canada's best-ever track and field team showing to that date.

Olympic and International Success

In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Ben JOHNSON won a bronze in the 100 m and Lynn Williams a bronze in the 3000 m. The men's relay team won a silver in the 4 x 100 m and the women's a silver in the 4 x 400 m. In the 1986 PAN-AM GAMES, Canadians took 7 silver medals and 3 bronze. Before his disgrace in the drug scandal at the Seoul Olympics, Johnson was the premier sprinter in the world, setting the record in the 100 m and winning the world championship in 1987, as well as breaking 2 world indoor records in the 60 m (6.41 sec) and the 50 m (5.55 sec). Angella ISSAJENKO holds the women's world indoor record for the 50 m dash (6.06 sec).

Canadian track and field suffered a devastating blow when Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 m gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, overshadowing Dave Steen's accomplishment in taking the bronze medal in the prestigious decathlon later in the Games. Following the drug scandal at Seoul, the federal government established the Commission of Inquiry (DUBIN INQUIRY) which heard shocking testimony about the widespread use of performance-enhancing substances. As a result of Dubin's report, Canada has strengthened its drug-testing program and is now among very few nations conducting random drug tests. The commission has been ignored, however, in other countries.

At the 1990 Commonwealth Games Canadians won 4 golds and 6 bronze. Michael SMITH won silver in the decathlon and Atlee Mahorn bronze in the 200 m at the 1991 World Championships. Mark McKOY, who had also left the Seoul games in disgrace and admitted that he experimented with steroids, returned to competition in 1991 and won a gold medal in the 110 m hurdles at the Olympic Games at Barcelona in 1992, Canada's first track and field gold medal in 60 years. Guillaume Leblanc won silver in the 20 km racewalk and Angela Chalmers won bronze in the 3000 m. (McKoy left Canada to run for Austria soon after.)

Not until Donovan BAILEY of Oakville, Ont, and Bruny Surin of Montréal ran the fastest times ever on Canadian soil in July 1995 (9.91 and 9.97 for the 100 m) did Canadian track and field begin to see a real turnaround from the scandals surrounding the Johnson affair.

Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin continued their success at the world championships at Göteburg, Sweden, in August 1995. Bailey won the gold medal in the 100 m with a time of 9.97 and Surin was close behind, winning silver. The two combined with Robert Esmie of Sudbury and Glenroy Gilbert of Ottawa to win gold in the 4 x 100 m relay - Canada's first-ever gold in a world championship relay. Michael Smith's bronze in the decathlon gave Canada its best team performance ever.

The speed events continued to be the field of excellence for Canadians in track and field at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Donovan Bailey won the 100 m race against the strongest field ever assembled, setting a world record of 9.84. Bailey, Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert and Bruny Surin won the men's 4 x 100 m relay in a spectacular finale.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics proved far less productive for Canadian track and field athletes: Bailey didn't run the 100 m because of illness, and the men's 4 x 100 m relay team failed to qualify. Mark Boswell, who was the 1999 world championship high jump silver medallist, was hampered by rain. Highlights for Canada were Kevin Sullivan's fifth-place finish in the 1500 m and Jason Turk's sixth-place finish in the discus.

Hurdler Perdita FELICIEN is one of Canada's most recent elite track competitors, being the first Canadian woman to win an individual medal at the world championship level. She has been named to three Canadian Olympic teams.

Continued Challenges

Canadians will no doubt continue to pursue and take pleasure from track and field for many years to come, but future opportunities for world-class performance are now contingent upon state support. The cost of training and competition - which includes facility rentals, coaching fees, scientific consulting, specialized medical treatment, travel and living expenses - are well beyond the resources of all but a few. Other public agencies, notably schools and the universities, bear some of these costs. The CTFA and a few clubs have been able to generate some revenue by fundraising and marketing - selling the goodwill that outstanding athletes enjoy for use in advertisements.

But these contributions have not proved sufficient in themselves. As much as the leaders of the sport would like to regain the autonomy of the old AAU, they remain dependent upon state funds and services and subject to government direction and control. To date, there has been a widespread consensus that the provision of high-performance opportunities in the Olympic sports such as track and field must be a public undertaking.