Aaron Brown confident Canadian relay teams will find way to Tokyo Olympics

The sample size was small, but Aaron Brown liked what he saw on the track from the new-look Canadian men’s 4×100-metre relay team.

Brown anchored the squad to victory over four Louisiana State University runners in 38.49 seconds on Saturday in Baton Rouge as part of a Team Canada training camp ahead of this weekend’s World Athletics Relays in Chorzów, Poland.

“To go 38.49 at this time of the season with people at different legs is encouraging,” Brown told CBC Sports, referring to teammates Bismark Boateng, Jerome Blake and EJ Floreal.

The foursome, however, won’t compete for at least a month after Athletics Canada announced later Saturday it was withdrawing from World Relays because of coronavirus concerns in Poland.

A COVID-19 exposure in Silesia could have devastating effects on Tokyo preparation — meaning self-isolation — regardless of whether an athlete tested positive or not, according to Athletics Canada high performance director Simon Nathan.

Canada was scheduled to send 24 athletes to World Relays, most of whom have not been vaccinated.

While Poland is showing signs of improvement, noted Nathan, it is reporting a high number of COVID-19 cases and travellers are strongly encouraged to avoid all non-essential travel in and out of the country.

“We made this decision with our team’s health and safety at heart,” Nathan added.

Brown, the two-time defending Canadian champion in the 100 and 200 metres, wasn’t “too concerned” about travelling to Poland when he left his wife Preeya and three-month-old son Kingsley at their Florida home to attend the training camp.

“I knew this was something that could be potentially in the works once I arrived to the camp and watched it unfold, so my initial reaction wasn’t one of too much shock,” said Brown, who has received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Men missed 4×100 final at 2019 worlds

“I felt like Canada had a solid plan in place to keep us safe at the World Relays. Of course, it would’ve been nice to know [Athletics Canada’s decision] before going to LSU, but I don’t think it would be fair to expect them to have known beforehand how everything would play out.”

At the 2019 world championships, Gavin Smellie, Brendon Rodney, Andre De Grasse and Brown finished sixth in their heat in 37.91 and missed out on qualifying for the 4×100 final by 5-1000ths of a second in Doha, Qatar.

WATCH | Canada fails to advance to 4×100 final at 2019 worlds:

Despite setting a season’s best time of 37.91 seconds, Canada’s men’s relay team featuring Gavin Smellie, Aaron Brown, Brendon Rodney and Andre De Grasse failed to qualify for the final at the world track and field championships. 4:22

In the 2016 Olympic final in Rio, Akeem Haynes, Brown, De Grasse and Rodney ran 37.64 to beat the 37.69 Canadian record held by the gold-medal winning team anchored by Donovan Bailey at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“I definitely saw room for improvement from our first run with [this year’s] team at LSU,” Brown said. “It’s hard to predict what would have happened in Poland because the relay is so volatile, but we would have definitely been competitive with this squad.”

It’s a tight-knit group as Brown trains daily with Blake, has spoken frequently with De Grasse and talks regularly with Smellie and Boateng as the trio are in the same fantasy basketball league. Bolade Ajomale and Andre Azonwanna were the other sprinters listed on Canada’s 4×100 team for World Relays.

Brown said he is hopeful the relay team can run at a meet early in the Diamond League season, which opens May 23 in Gateshead, England.

9th on Top List

Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert is confident races could be arranged to help athletes secure a spot in Tokyo via the World Athletics Top Lists, a ranking of the fastest times during the Olympic qualifying period.

To qualify, relay teams must:

  • Place top 8 at the 2019 world championships.
  • Finish top 8 at 2021 World Relays.
  • Be among the remaining team in the top 16 in the Top List.
The Canadian men’s 4×100 team is ninth entering World Relays, based on its time from 2019 worlds.

“I’m not concerned [about qualifying] given our time from [worlds] is strong,” Brown said. “I believe we will be able to do what’s necessary to qualify our teams for Tokyo.”

‘Risks outweigh rewards’

The lone Canadian entry assured a spot on the starting line in Japan is the women’s 4×400 team, which placed eighth at the 2019 World Athletics Championship in Qatar.

The foursome of Alicia Brown, Aiyanna-Brigitte Stiverne, Maddy Price and Sage Watson crossed the line fifth at worlds in 3:25.91 before being disqualified for a lane infringement and dropped to eighth after an official review by the International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics).

Sage Watson, right, was to anchor the women’s 4×400 team at World Relays. “The main focus for teams, athletes and Team Canada is to get ready for Tokyo,” she says of the Olympics in July. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/File)

“I fully support Athletics Canada’s decision to drop out of the World Relays. It was a very tough decision that took time and consideration to make,” Watson told CBC Sports.

“It would have been great to compete again with Team Canada … but the risks outweigh the rewards. It seems to be a common decision as the U.S., Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Australia teams [also withdrew].

“The main focus for teams, athletes and Team Canada is to get ready for Tokyo,” added Watson, a member of the 4×400 team that placed fourth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Over 100 teams from 30-plus countries

The U.S. led the way at the most recent World Relays in 2019, winning five of the nine events in Yokohama, Japan.

Besides the men’s and women’s 4×100 and 4×400 races, the 4×200, mixed 4×400 and mixed shuttle hurdles relay will be contested in Poland.

Over 100 teams from more than 30 countries are scheduled to compete at Silesian Stadium, with three-time world indoor champion Pavel Maslak, European indoor 400 gold medallist Femke Bol and Africa’s Akani Simbine, who has run under 10 seconds in the 100 several times this year, among the notables.

The Nigerian men’s 4×100 team could raise eyebrows, led by Blessing Okabgare, who won the 100 at the USATF Grand Prix last weekend in Eugene, Ore. Teammate Divine Oduduru was the 2019 NCAA outdoor 100 champion.

WATCH | Does Christian Coleman’s absence affect men’s 100m hype ahead of Tokyo?:

Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin decide how much Christian Coleman’s two-year ban will change the sprinting landscape in Japan this summer. 12:25

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