World Athletics suspends Tokyo qualifying, which changes marathon landscape

TORONTO — Changes in Tokyo Olympic qualifying dates have Canada's marathoners rearranging their race calendars.

World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, announced Tuesday it was suspending the qualification period for the Tokyo 2021 Games until Dec. 1, meaning any results between now and then don't count for Olympic qualifying or world ranking.

Marathoners are the hardest hit because of the number of races that are traditionally held in the fall, such as the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct. 18, or races that were postponed to the fall due to COVID-19, including the Boston Marathon, which was pushed back to Sept. 14, and the London Marathon, which is now scheduled for Oct. 4.

"I didn't see this coming," said Reid Coolsaet.

The two-time Olympian had planned to run in Toronto, but may instead race at either Fukuoka, Japan where he ran the fastest time of his career — two hours 10 minutes 55 seconds — in 2016, or at Valencia, Spain. Both races are Dec. 6. 

Fukuoka, Valencia and the Jan. 17 marathon in Houston should be packed full of marathoners aiming to qualify.

"Here's the thing. If I feel like I can run 2:11.30 (Canada's men's qualifying standard), I almost don't want to do it in October or November," Coolsaet said. "I'm not going to come back in a month or two and do it again.

"I would love to run Toronto and if I feel like training is at a place where I'd realistically run 2:13 or 2:14, something like that, then I would just run Toronto. But if I really do feel I have a good shot at the Olympics, then that would change things."

World Athletics said the Dec. 1 date for qualifying to resume is "subject to the global situation returning to normal."

Coolsaet said the decision affects about a half dozen Canadian men's marathoners.

The women's team is tougher to crack. Dayna Pidhoresky locked up her spot by winning the Canadian title at the Toronto marathon last fall, while Malindi Elmore and Rachel Cliff both ran fast times in the past few months that will be tough to beat, including Elmore's Canadian record of 2:24.50 set in January. 

Kinsey Middleton, who is chasing Canada's top women, posted on Twitter on Tuesday: "My hope would be that if it's safe enough to put on a race (in the fall), then the athletes should be granted the opportunity to have the time at that race count. If it's not safe to race at all till Dec 1st, then this ruling makes sense. If races still occur, it doesn't seem fair."

There is also no guarantee that the fall races will be held as scheduled.

"When they postponed Boston, I was like, 'Oh, that's good, we'll have Boston in September," Coolsaet said. "Now I'm thinking like, are we going to be able to have so many people congregate in one area? It doesn't look great."

The suspension of qualifying does take the pressure off track and field athletes, who would have wanted to race this summer if possible but haven't been able to train amid the global pandemic.

Suspending the qualifying period "gives more certainty for athlete planning and preparation and is the best way to address fairness in what is expected to be the uneven delivery of competition opportunities across the globe for athletes given the challenges of international travel and government border restrictions," World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. 

Coolsaet said that in the bigger picture, he's "not worried about stuff like this."

"It's pretty superficial," he said. "But when I think of what I want to try to accomplish (a third Olympic appearance). . . if people can train in October, November and it's safe to have races even if they're not mass participation races, then that would be a shame if you could do something and it wouldn't be allowed.

"But everything is so speculative at this point, I guess I don't really feel that much emotion about the decision because it might be a moot point anyway by September, October."

The International Olympic Committee announced two weeks ago that it was postponing this summer's Olympics to next year. They're scheduled to open July 23.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press