This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Midway through the men’s 200-metre final at the Canadian track and field championship this past Sunday, Andre De Grasse was running third, trailing Brendon Rodney and Aaron Brown, and the outlook appeared grim for the fastest 200-metre runner in Canadian history.
Brown, who is probably the most consistent high-level sprinter Canada has ever produced, has run 19.98 this season to lead all Canadians. Rodney, who runs the curve for Canada’s world champion relay team, was fresh off the fastest 100-metre time of the weekend — a personal best 10.00 in the semifinals on Friday.
As for De Grasse, most years you can pencil him in for a national championships medal in both the 100 and the 200, but 2023 isn’t most years. De Grasse’s best 200-metre time heading into nationals was 20.35 seconds, .63 seconds off his personal best, and .21 seconds slower than the qualifying standard for the world championships. He also finished ninth in his 100-metre semifinal at nationals, and missed the final entirely, even though his time — 10.21 seconds — tied his season best.
So with 95 metres remaining, could we have trusted him to summon the closing speed to claim a national title?
But over the final 60 metres, De Grasse overtook Brown and Rodney, looking like the Andre De Grasse we have been watching since 2015. The guy with a late-race gear few other sprinters have, who seems to gain speed with every step on the final straightaway.
Of course, that’s an optical illusion. Nobody’s accelerating in the second half of a 200-metre dash. Most people slow down a lot. De Grasse decelerates the least, so he takes over late in the race.
But the final result is just what it looked like: a victory for De Grasse.
The stopwatch also told the truth — 20.01 seconds is De Grasse’s best time this season, and fast enough to qualify him for worlds.
WATCH | De Grasse wins 200m at nationals, fails to reach 100m final:
It was another high-stakes win for a sprinter who has made clutch performances his personal brand. Judging by the official time, De Grasse is still several strides behind his personal best, but it was still a breakthrough race for a sprinter who had struggled through the spring and early summer. And it saved the season for a long list of stakeholders.
And then there’s Canada’s 4×100-metre relay team, which also includes Brown, Rodney and Jerome Blake. The relay program’s steady climb up the podium culminated in a gold medal at last year’s world championships. A chance at a second straight win depends heavily on De Grasse, the team’s lights-out anchor runner.
And the drive-by fans dropping in for worlds will also benefit. Casual fans embrace niche sports like track and field during global events, but enjoy them even more if a name brand performer competes. Regardless of which other Canadians will contend for medals, De Grasse remains the face of the track and field north of the border, and the athlete best positioned to broaden its audience beyond the hardcores.
WATCH | Canadian men’s 4x100m relay team finally receives Olympic silver medals:
So what explains the slow start to this season?
But it’s worth remembering that De Grasse hit the world scene in 2015, when he followed his NCAA titles with gold in the 100 and 200 at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and then backed that up with a bronze behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. He has been a top-tier elite sprinter since before Jose Bautista’s bat flip — an eternity in that world that measures success in fractions of seconds.
So it was also fair to wonder whether a late-career decline had begun.
This isn’t to single out De Grasse. After eight years as a medal threat, he’s entitled to a slight regression. At his level, there’s a paper-thin difference between winning a medal in the 100 metres, and watching it as a spectator because you got bounced in the semifinals. Once you’ve run 9.89, there are few paths to improvement, but endless ways to get slower.
Any or all of them could cost you a step, which is enough to put you out of the running.
None of this is specific to De Grasse.
Bolt, won his last Olympic titles in 2016, but peaked seven years earlier. That’s not an opinion, but a matter of statistical fact. Bolt ran 9.58 and 19.19 at the 2009 world championships and dealt with decline the rest of his career. We just didn’t notice, because Bolt could give ground and still win gold.
But De Grasse, like every other sprinter not named Bolt, works with much thinner margins. In the 2016 Olympic 100-metre final, Bolt ran .21 seconds slower than his personal best, and won gold. He was .37 off his personal best the next summer in London, and still finished third at worlds. In Langley, B.C., De Grasse ran .32 seconds slower than his PB and missed finals at nationals.
Another relevant, overlooked fact: The 200 metres is De Grasse’s best event. It’s where he owns the national record (19.62 seconds) and where he won Olympic gold. So it’s not a shock that his breakthrough race came in the 200.
Does Sunday’s run make De Grasse a medal contender at worlds?
Not automatically. At 28, De Grasse is now the veteran fending off young prodigies, like 20-year-old Letsile Tebogo of Botswana, and Erriyon Knighton, the 19-year-old American phenom. If Noah Lyles, whose 19.45-second clocking at the London Diamond League leads the world this season, survives the 100 at worlds with his hamstrings and energy intact, he’s still the gold-medal favourite.
Making the podium in Budapest will likely require a time south of 19.80 seconds. If De Grasse had scraped by at nationals with the 20.16 qualifying standard, I’d tell you it’s safe to write him off. That gap is too big.
But can he shave a .20 off of 20.01?
There’s a chance.
And that’s all De Grasse has ever needed.