Athletics Canada faces another huge challenge in getting its relay teams to the starting line at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
After the global pandemic erased most of the 2020 season, Canada had pinned its qualifying hopes on next week's World Athletics Relays in Silesia, Poland, but announced Saturday night it was withdrawing due to surging COVID-19 cases in that country.
Canada, which won bronze in the men's 4x100-metre relay at the Rio Games, has only qualified the women's 4x400 for Tokyo. That was by virtue of its eighth-place finish at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar.
"Though showing signs of improvement, Poland is reporting a very high level of COVID-19 and travellers are strongly encouraged to avoid all non-essential travel in and out of Poland, even those who are fully vaccinated," Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada's high performance director, said in a statement.
"Most of the Canadian team is not vaccinated, neither are most of the people who will be involved with the competition, therefore, there are increased risks associated with gathering alongside others from different parts of the world."
In the first time Canada's relay teams competed since 2019, the men's 4x100 - Bismark Boateng, Jerome Blake, EJ Floreal, and Aaron Brown - won the LSU Alumni Gold meet at Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday.
The meet capped a week-long Canadian relays camp in Baton Rouge in preparation for the Poland event.
Canada - Akeem Haynes, Brown, Brendon Rodney, and Andre De Grasse - captured bronze in one of the most entertaining track races in Rio. It gave De Grasse his third medal of those Games, and Canada's first Olympic relay medal in 20 years. Bolade Ajomale ran the semis to help get Canada to the final.
Many of Canada's top track and field athletes have travelled to the U.S. recently in search of qualifying standards.
In other Canadian results Saturday, Christabel Nettey earned silver in long jump and Charles Philibert-Thiboutot was second in the men's 1,500 at the Drake Relays.
Justyn Knight, a 5,000- and 10,000-metre specialist, was second in the 1,500 at a Grand Prix meet at Eugene, Ore. Knight ran a personal-best three minutes 35.85 seconds, narrowly missing the Tokyo qualifying mark of 3:35.00. Sarah Mitton was fourth in shot put with a throw of 18.04 metres.
Canadian athletes must hit an automatic qualifying standard to punch their ticket to Tokyo, or accumulate world ranking points. Nathan acknowledged in an interview earlier this year that Canada may send a significantly smaller team to Tokyo due to qualifying challenges.
Track and field is far from the only sport impacted. Canada's best boxer Mandy Bujold, an 11-time national champion, will very likely stay home from Tokyo after her Olympic qualifying event in Argentina in May was cancelled.
Nathan pointed out that a COVID-19 exposure at the relays event in Poland could have devastating effects on Tokyo preparation. It would mean self-isolation, regardless of whether an athlete tested positive or not.
"These issues are magnified for a relay team, as compared to individual events," he said.
Australia, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States also withdrew from the World Athletics Relays.
"As long as the results in Poland leave spaces for other teams to qualify, we still have time to arrange races and to qualify for the Games via the World Athletics Top Lists," Athletics Canada's head coach Glenroy Gilbert said. "The men’s 4x100-metre relay team currently sits in ninth, which we hope will be strong enough to qualify regardless of the results, while the mixed 4x400-metre relay team is ranked 11th.
"We know the decision to withdraw from World Relays is disappointing for our athletes, but we are committed to working with them to do everything possible to secure our place in Tokyo." This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press