Nestled behind two frosted glass doors inside the track and field centre at York University is the home base for many of Canada’s Pan Am medal hopes. But there’s not much that says high performance about this place.
A sign on the doors reads “restricted access”; it really should say “limited space.”
There’s a homemade ice bath in one corner butting up against a row of bar bells. There’s a printer beside the squat rack, and hurdles are stacked beside a shelf of cleaning supplies.
The team’s operations manager is sitting on the floor, a laptop on her knees, to figure out their travel plans.
Sam Effah, Gavin Smellie, Phylicia George and Khamica Bingham are already working out, with more sprinters starting to trickle in. They’ll have to wait for space.
With just half a dozen athletes in the room, it’s already impossible to make yourself heard.
“Just wait until therapy shows up,” strength and conditioning coach Dale Lablans says, pointing to the massage tables in the middle of the room.
And nearby, Smellie calls “watch out,” before throwing a barbell to his chest. The athletes closest to him take a half step back, but any further egress is restricted by packages of Team Canada clothing laid out on what little bit of floor is left.
Last year, Athletics Canada sent someone to assess the facility and program with coaches Anthony McCleary and Desai Williams. He looked around the cramped space and suggested they sit down at a table in their office to discuss it.
“Red or black?” Williams responded, pointing to the red massage table and, a few feet away, the black one.
It wasn’t a joke. There’s no separate office — that’s why there’s a printer in the corner and an operations manager with a laptop on the floor. And there’s no storage, hence the hurdles hanging off the wall and the clothes on the floor.
Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson isn’t laughing about any of this. He knows what’s at stake.
This facility will stand as a test for the very idea of whether an athletic hub, which attempts to draw the best athletes to train together and access top coaching and support services, can be successful for sprinters in Canada.
The system, the coaches and his very leadership will be judged, in part, on the success of the athletes who train here. Not everyone thinks what the Toronto-based athletes are trying to do — reach the top by training in Canada — is even possible.
“You need to be in a place where you have a world-class coach, great facilities, fantastic warmth and sunshine,” Donovan Bailey says. The two-time Olympic gold medallist, whose 9.84 second 100-metre run was the world record in the late 1990s, spent his career training in Louisiana and Texas.
“It’s not really just about the cold but you have to be in a place that has a world-class energy and, maybe, some might say, a world-class confidence, ego or arrogance,” Bailey says. “Does it work in Canada? We haven’t seen anything that says it does.”
McCleary is the first to agree that being a Toronto-based sprinter isn’t ideal. But, as most things do, it comes down to money: “Most of the athletes who train here don’t have a choice.”
To move to a training base in the U. S. would cost $3,000 a month, he says, double what Sport Canada pays the top athletes it funds. And many of these athletes, coming off injuries or difficult years, get no funding at all.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot,” McCleary says, “but when you don’t have it, it’s everything.”
Even to train here at home, the sacrifices these athletes and their families make for sport are significant. With that comes a drive to prove to themselves — and everyone else — that it was worth it.
That’s why they’re all so angry that the promised upgrades to their training facility — a lengthened section of track and an expanded high performance centre that would separate physical training, therapy and office space — were put on hold by York University last year.
A lengthened straightaway, in particular, would have made real difference to indoor training. The 200-metre indoor track here comes with tight corners that increase the risk of ankle and knee injuries.
The straightaway, off to the side, is just 80 metres long, and sprinters can’t run that whole distance at speed before they have to slow down and still crash, quite hard, into the padded mats on the wall.
That makes it tough to train for a 100-metre race.
The new $45-million outdoor stadium at York that will host the 2015 Pan Am Games track and field competition looks great when the team comes back from their winter training in St. Kitts.
But, across the street, at the indoor facility — that was to be part of the lasting legacy for athletics from hosting the Games — it’s the same as ever, but for a resurfaced track.
York put the planned upgrades on hold, saying there was already too much construction on campus. The team has been told that the renovations will move ahead after the Pan Ams, but for this group of athletes, that will come too late to matter.
“Considering the facility, the group is doing really well,” Eriksson says. But doing well isn’t nearly enough. They need to win.
That’s because in Canada, success and funding are now intrinsically tied together — not just for the athletes but for Athletics Canada itself. In an era of Own the Podium funding, sport funds go up, and down, with the medal count.
“We’re funded on performance by the government but if you don’t have the facilities you can’t get the results,” Eriksson says. “We have no place in Canada we can really call high performance. This was going to be ours and we really got screwed.”
Such as it is, they’re not even in it right now. The indoor facility closed at the beginning of June to prepare for the Pan Am Games.
So the team, which includes more than a dozen athletes trying to represent Canada in July, have been reduced to storing their equipment in a rented van, borrowing the track which rings the Toronto Argonauts’ practice field and getting their massages afterwards in the public landing of a second-floor stairwell at the Downsview sports complex.
“We’re hosting the Pan Am Games and have nowhere to train,” says McCleary. “That doesn’t make any sense.”