Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where have the elite gone?

When it comes to athletics, Manitoba doesn't rate on national scene

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CANADA'S Road to Excellence does not run through Winnipeg.

When Athletics Canada honed in on its best chances for success at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it didn't even look at Winnipeg as the site for one of six national high-performance training centres.

A city and province that have produced some truly great track and field athletes and coaches over the years, from Svein Sigfusson, Jimmy Ball and Eric Coy to Angela Chalmers and Theresa Brick, is in an athletics lull.

Winnipeg's Alex Gardiner, Athletics Canada's national head coach, who knows the Manitoba track and field scene as well as anyone, says the problems include lack of elite coaches and athletes, a minimum of money and lack of club cohesion.

"We only have, really, one full-time professional coach in Claude Berube at the University of Manitoba," Gardiner said last week on the eve of the 2009 Boeing Indoor Classic, which attracted hundreds of track and field athletes. "I don't think we lack expertise in coaching, we lack full-time employment.

"It's just making a commitment to more of a focus on high-performance sport. Now not everybody likes high-performance sport, but if you want to play in the national playground, this is what you have to do."

As usual, the solution partly involves money -- finding enough to attract the coaches who will make a commitment to come here. If they come, the athletes follow. If they don't, and there are no "champions" to help bring them here, you have to build from within.

What Victoria (middle distance), Calgary (outreach), Edmonton (sprints), Kamloops, B.C. (throws), Ottawa (relays) and Sherbrooke (para-athletics) have that Winnipeg doesn't are successful elite international coaches, athletes/training groups, and money.

"Pay, career path and program support," Gardiner said of what's needed. "There's no point putting the crown on the king if they don't have a kingdom. They've got to have some money around them."

Berube, whose U of M team is expected to make some waves at the CIS nationals this weekend, said Winnipeg had one of the national training centres years ago when there were more coaches here with international experience and success, like Gardiner and Bruce Pirnie.

"The first thing athletes need is coaching," Berube said. "I'm not saying we don't have good coaches -- we've got very good coaches in this province. But they just don't have the international experience that some of those athletes are looking for...

"There's a lot of talent in the province, but like the coaching, it comes in cycles. When the cycle's on the up side, we usually do really well. We have to kind of work through those down cycles.

"But there's a lot of talent here, absolutely."

Larry Switzer, head of Winnipeg Optimist Track Club and former president of Athletics Manitoba, was team leader for the Canadian track and field team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

"It's true we have some great coaches, but then we don't necessarily have a huge number of people on the Olympic team," Switzer said. "In fact, we didn't put anybody on the Olympic team in (Beijing)...

"It seems to ebb and flow, and at the moment we're on a little bit of a rise with our younger ones coming up, but we don't have any really big names."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2009 C4

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