TORONTO — This past weekend saw Toronto host some of the world's top track and field athletes in the third edition of the NACAC (North America, Central America and the Caribbean) track and field championships at Varsity Stadium.
Among the notables were Canada's Aaron Brown, Jamaican sprint legend Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and 100-metre hurdles world record holder Kendra Harrison of the United States.
With a handful of stars and competitors within the IAAF's top five rankings, Athletics Canada head coach, Glenroy Gilbert, was puzzled as to why the event wasn't sold out for each session.
"The crowd support's been good, [but] it could be better. You have international sprinters, Olympic champions here in Toronto and you can't fill the grandstand. As far as I'm concerned, I think that could've been far better," Gilbert says.
The event, branded as "Toronto 2018: Track & Field in the 6ix," started promotion in October of last year and tickets were initially as low as $ 30 per day before being reduced even further to $ 20.
On the track, Gilbert was pleased with the performance of the Canadian athletes, compared to last year's disappointing showing at the world championships where they failed to take home a single medal.
At the end of the three-day meet, Canada won 21 medals (three gold, eight silver, and 10 bronze) to finish third overall in total medals behind the United States (61) and Jamaica (22).
With most of Canada's Olympic and world championship medallists — Andre De Grasse, Damian Warner, and Melissa Bishop, to name a few — missing in action, it provided a chance for some of the nation's youth to get seasoning on a big stage.
Jillian Weir picked up a silver medal in the women's hammer throw and distance runner Justyn Knight snagged bronze in the men's 5000 final despite being far from his best.
For others — like long jumper Jared Kerr — it was a learning lesson on their journey to success.
Bismark Boateng, Jerome Blake, Mobolade Ajomale and Aaron Brown ran to a gold medal in the men's 4×100-metre relay at the NACAC Championships in Toronto. 6:00
Elsewhere, veteran sprinter Aaron Brown filled De Grasse's shoes as he anchored the 4×100 men's relay team to gold despite working with three new teammates — Bismark Boateng, Jerome Blake, and Mobolade Ajomale.
"This provided an opportunity for some of the younger athletes to step up, to get some international experience here at home," Gilbert says. "I think overall whenever athletes can win medals and feel like they're actually achieving something at an international competition, it's a good feeling. So we just [need to] take it to the next level moving forward."
Emmanuel shines bright
The young guns were far from the only ones that caught Gilbert's eye. Evan Dunfee's gold in the 20,000-metre race walk, Tim Nedow's personal-best throw en route to a silver medal in the men's shot put, and Brandon McBride holding off Marco Arop in the men's 800 were among his highlights.
But perhaps it was Crystal Emmanuel whose star shone brightest amongst all the Canadians.
The 26-year-old won her second medal in her hometown at the NACAC Championships in Toronto. 3:27
The 26-year-old from Toronto medalled in the women's 100, 200, and 4×100 relay setting a new personal best in the former with a time of 11.11 seconds.
"Crystal Emmanuel I think a lot of times is overshadowed in terms of being a female sprinter in Canada. Time and time again, she's made the finals at major events — the finals in London last summer — and broke the [34-year-old] Canadian record in the 200," Gilbert says. "Her performing the way she did here winning medals at NACAC — to me she did the job."
Much was made of the depleted competitive fields in some events with some athletes guaranteed a medal just by completing their respective discipline.
While injuries played a role, Dunfee told The Canadian Press that the scheduling of the NACAC didn't help for the Central American and Caribbean countries whose own meet just ended on Aug. 3 and thus they can't afford to send athletes to a place like Toronto on such a quick turnaround.
As for the last-minute withdrawals, replacing an athlete isn't as simple with the high benchmark needed to qualify for the NACAC.
For instance, the women's 400 hurdles field featured three of the world's top-five athletes. So while Canada's medal count may be a bit inflated, it shouldn't be entirely discounted.
"The standard is tough but we're running a high-performance program that's trying to win medals at the world championship and Olympic level," Gilbert says. "If we can get athletes out here, challenging at an "A" standard — an IAAF standard — then that's how much more they'll be prepared for Doha and Tokyo  … there's a lot of athletes dealing with various challenges with competing at an international level — this provides a nice stepping stone for them."
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