De Grasse missing nationals due to COVID-19 is a chance to hit reset on unsettled season

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.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, how quickly is COVID-19 still spreading?

So fast that we’ve lost track of cases. Did you even notice there are multiple versions of Omicron gaining ground around the world? No shame if you hadn’t. This bug is evolving as rapidly as distance runner shoe technology.

It no longer makes headlines for simply existing, but it hops between hosts so quickly that, here in Ontario, we’ve literally lost count. The province didn’t stop its daily data updates because the virus had disappeared, but because it was spreading faster than they could reliably test and track.

COVID-19 moves so fast it chased down Canada’s Fastest Man, Andre De Grasse, who contracted the virus sometime between his 10.05-second win at Diamond League Oslo and his return to his training base in Jacksonville, Fla. In between, he laboured to a fourth-place finish in the 200 at Diamond League Paris. His time, 20.38 seconds, is blazing fast in the real world but sluggish for De Grasse, who holds the national record at 19.62 seconds.

Last week, you could have attributed the lacklustre run to jetlag, or to legs still heavy after his fast race in bad conditions in Oslo. Now, you wonder if the early stages of COVID-19 slowed him.

WATCH | De Grasse wins 100m in Oslo stop of Diamong League tour:

Andre De Grasse wins 100m with season-best performance at Diamond League in Norway

Andre De Grasse wins the 100 metres event at the Diamond League meet at Bislett Stadium in Oslo with a season-best time of 10.05 seconds.

On Tuesday morning De Grasse made his diagnosis public, and confirmed he would miss this weekend’s national championships in Langley, B.C., where he was scheduled to run the 100 and 200.

“I’m obviously pretty disappointed not to be able to race at home,” De Grasse said in a statement. “Hopefully I can get back to training pretty quickly and prepare for the rest of the season.”

Widespread vaccinations have greatly blunted the risk for COVID patients landing in the hospital or the cemetery, and COVID fatigue, along with a long list of other urgent news stories, have pushed the virus further down our list of priorities, but De Grasse’s absence from the nationals reminds us we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

After two years of disruptions, most sports leagues have eased back into their pre-COVID schedules. The NFL even added a game to its regular season. But, as a national championships without De Grasse demonstrates, we’re all still at the mercy of the virus. One case can deprive an annual event of its marquee performer. An outbreak can still cause chaos.

In this case, the immediate disruption is to the medal podium in the men’s 100 and 200 metres. De Grasse goes from a favourite to win two golds to a spectator like the rest of us… unless he’s getting bed rest, and snoozes through the 100-metre final, scheduled for after midnight ET Saturday.

And, of course, removing the highest-profile performer from the track meet’s most-watched race might dent ticket sales, and reduce the number of people who pay to stream the nationals online. But track is still a niche sport, divided between avid and casual followers. The hardest of the hardcore will still scale a paywall to see whether Jerome Blake, whose 10-flat clocking in May leads all Canadians this year, can outrun Aaron Brown to win his first national title at 100 metres. And the casual fans who parachute in for the Olympics aren’t building the first Saturday night of summer around a footrace anyway, so shutting De Grasse down won’t cost organizers the drive-by fan’s attention.

Others to miss nationals too

De Grasse is one of a number of elite Canadians who scratched from the nationals in the leadup to the meet. Middle-distance standout Gabriela DeBues-Stafford ended her season early because of a stress fracture in her sacrum, and 400-metre hurdler Sage Watson shut down her 2022 season after a back injury.

Long-distance stars Mohammed Ahmed and Justyn Knight will miss the meet with injuries, decathlete Damian Warner, the Olympic gold medallist last summer, pulled out earlier this week, citing a knee injury.

For this weekend, it’s a disappointment. Without a Canadian meet on the Diamond League schedule, the nationals often represent the only chance for the country’s super elite to compete at home. But with the world championships starting July 15, Athletics Canada, smartly focused on the longer term.

WATCH | Morgan Campbell explains why it’s too soon to worry about De Grasse’s form:

Why it’s too soon to worry about Andre De Grasse

With world track and field championships around the corner, Andre De Grasse has finished off the podium in all three of his Diamond League races. But Morgan Campbell explains why Canadians shouldn’t be worried.

“Andre De Grasse, Damian Warner, and Mohammed Ahmed are out of the [national event] having received medical exemptions from our medical staff,” said a statement the federation published on Monday. “Athletics Canada expect all three to be healthy and ready by the time the world championships begin.”

Depth is one kind of luxury — if three American 9.9 sprinters get stuck in traffic and miss their races at the national championships, the U.S. can plug in three more sub-10 runners and field a solid team.

But the talent disparity we see in Canada offers a different kind of flexibility. With so few top-tier world-class peers in Canada, De Grasse and Warner and Ahmed, when they’re healthy and in shape, don’t need to audition for the national team. So if it makes sense for them to mend minor injuries, or wrestle COVID-19 into submission, so they can focus on next month, Athletics Canada can let that happen.

American sprinters, meanwhile, need to be world championship-sharp just to make their team, and then peak again two weeks later. Not impossible, clearly, but probably not ideal.

WATCH | Breaking down what makes De Grasse so fast:

What makes Andre De Grasse so fast?

Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert breaks down the physical and mental abilities that make Andre De Grasse Canada’s fastest man.

None of this means De Grasse is in an objectively better position than Americans, like his training partner, Trayvon Bromell, or 2019 world champion Christian Coleman. If you’re ever presented with a choice between COVID and no COVID, never choose COVID, for any reason.

But in the U.S., with its sprint depth, officials can’t place you on the team based on how fast you have shown you can run. They need to know how fast you are right now, because if you can’t run 9.89, somebody else can. Maybe more than one somebody. In the U.S. a positive COVID test four days ahead of the nationals would effectively knock you out of the worlds, too.

Being Canadian means De Grasse will have a chance to regroup from the latest detour in a bumpy 2022.

Normally, his seasons unfold the way his best races do, with a steady buildup to a strong finish. But this spring has seemed disjointed. Bromell and a host of other runners dusted him at the Prefontaine Classic, and even his recent season’s best results leave him several strides behind peak De Grasse. His 10.05 in the 100 metres ties him for 34th in the world, and 20.38 in the 200 put him 55th.

COVID might represent another setback, but it depends on how hard the virus hits him. If it puts him in bed for a few days, it’ll tighten his timeline to prep for the worlds. But if it treats him like it did me earlier this year — annoying, with 36 hours of sniffles, and a valid excuse to sleep and stay hydrated — he could jump back into his rhythm quickly. 

A lost opportunity at two more national titles, for sure.

But it might also give De Grasse a chance to hit the reset button on an unsettled season.

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