Canada's Best Ever?

Is the current generation/class of Canada’s top women middle and long distance runners the best ever? Even dropping down to the 400m - from the 400m - the Marathon is this the deepest ever?

At last summer’s Olympic Games with the exception of the 10000m, as a country we qualified 3 women in every event from the 400m to the Marathon. In fact, it was a bit of a battle to get those spots in some of the events!

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Arguably, yes, but we’d have to do an even-by-event comparison with the 80s, which I think still leads. From Angela Bailey to Silvia Ruegger, and with Lynn Williams in between, we had pretty much every event covered. Even someone like Sue Lee, whom many would be inclined to forget after all these years, was 8th in the 10k final at Seoul!

Great question, though!

Those were true superstars from the 1980’s. But don’t seem to recall there being the depth that we have right now in each event. With battles to make spots well beyond the standards in some cases for that Tokyo team.

To be sure, we’d need someone with an interest in looking closely at the comparative numbers, but there was very good depth across the board in the '80s. It’s just we’ve forgotten a lot of the names. For example, there was another Canadian women-- Carole Roulliard-- only a few seconds back of Sue in Seoul that year (also under the then Canadian record). How many people would recall THAT name? And even comparing high profile athletes, Lynn Williams was very much the GDS of the '80s. In terms of global performance, there is really no difference between them (although GDS still has quite a few years in which to further distinguish herself).

I remember the name… because she beat me in the first road race I ever ran. The memory is a little hazy, but I think it was the 1992 Longboat 10K. I would have been 16, and the reigning OFSAA Junior XC champion, but she smoked me. I think Clive Hamilton won the men’s race.

Anyway, as to the actual question, it’s an interesting one. I don’t know the answer, but two points:

  • You need some specific parameters for an apples-to-apples comparison. If you take “currently active female middle-distance runners” and compare them to “lifetime bests from female middle-distance runners who were active at some point in the 1980s,” you’re not going to get an accurate picture. It would be interesting to tally the number of, say, top-10 and top-50 end-of-year rankings from 2021 and from any given year from the 1980s. I do have the impression that the 1980s were remarkable deep on the women’s side.

  • The other tricky thing is whether you’re asking “best relative to their peers” or “best relative to some hypothetical absolute standard.” In the former case, you’re interested in rankings and Olympic finishes and so on. That’s pretty straightforward (although it’s skewed by, say, rampant drug use in the 1980s, and by dramatically different Canadian Olympic standards from cycle to cycle). In the latter case, you’re asking who would win if you had a time machine and staged a race where everyone was racing in the same equipment on the same surface. Right now, based on the times we’ve been seeing recently, I have no idea how to make those comparisons!

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Full agreement, Hutch, re: the need to find a useful metric-- and the difficulty in doing so. While it was the furthest thing from systematic or scientific, my general sense when going through the events from 100m to the marathon was that we seem to have had just as many women “in the mix” (i.e. capable of making an major semi-final or final) then as now. And, I was trying exclude the obvious-- indeed, proven-- dopers from the Francis circle. If there is a difference between then and now based on this rough metric, I’m betting it would be pretty marginal. And one thing that’s beyond dispute, I think, is that the two best eras for Canadian women’s Athletics are the 80s and the current one (2016-present). That said, I would welcome someone more willing to dig into the performance data than I am to dispute it!

P.S. Carole was great-- huge kicker on the track!