Carol Howe is Canada's third fastest female marathoner, with a best time of 2 hours 34 minutes. That's a full three minutes faster than the International Olympic Committee's qualifying standard. Yet when the women's Olympic marathon kicks off in Athens Aug. 22, Howe won't be running. Neither will any other Canadian woman--or man. The reason? The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has made its national standards so tough--2:28. 14 for women and 2:12.38 for men--that no marathoner has qualified. After disappointing showings in Atlanta and Sydney, the COC hopes to boost the country's proportion of medalists by sending only its most competitive runners, says Martin Goulet, director of endurance programs for the national team. That rankles athletes who have been training for years and who say it contradicts the spirit of the Games. "I have no chance at a medal, but is that the point?" says Howe, 38, who lives and trains in Summit, N.J. "I made the Olympic team. It's just that Canada has chosen not to send me."
Runners aren't the only Canadian athletes with shattered dreams this summer. Standards have been tightened across the board, shutting out competitors in everything from judo to diving. Under the old system, athletes had to rank in the top 16 worldwide to qualify for the Olympics, says Mark Lowry, the COC's executive director for sport. But in 2002, the COC raised the qualifying ranking to the top 12 to produce "a higher probability of achieving better performances in Athens," says Lowry. More medals mean better public support--and more government funding for athletes.
Tony Kiesenhofer, executive director of the Canadian Table Tennis Association (CTTA), says that the tougher standards mean that hopefuls like Marie-Christine Roussy, who qualified under the old rules, will lose her spot in Athens to a player from another country. The CTTA is considering legal action against the COC; Kiesenhofer points out that at the 2003 World Table Tennis Championships, the No. 1 player was eliminated early while the player ranked No. 62 went on to win.
Indeed, for athletes and spectators alike, the joy of the Olympics lies in its unpredictable outcomes. Little-known boxer Trevor Stewardson recently won silver at an Olympic qualifying match in Rio de Janeiro. But because the event wasn't on the COC's approved list, it didn't allow him to qualify for the team. Canada "is the only country in the world where the Olympic Committee is putting up a bar instead of helping," he says. And amateur athletes already have enough hurdles to jump.