By RON FANFAIR
Olympic and world record holder, Usain Bolt, will undoubtedly be the main attraction, but the University of Toronto will be in the spotlight too, as it seeks to host major track and field events in this city again, beginning with the “Festival of Excellence” meet featuring the world’s fastest man and Canada’s present and future athletic talent.
The meet takes place at Varsity stadium on Thursday, June 11.
This is the first time in 16 years that a major athletics meeting is being held in Toronto and the U of T is using the showpiece and a series of other track and field events in the next six weeks to revitalize high performance sport in the city and also provide local athletes with an opportunity to regularly showcase their talent at home.
The last major meet in Toronto was the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) world indoor event at SkyDome in March 1993.
The “Festival of Excellence” is part of a series of track and field events celebrating Varsity Centre’s IAAF-certified track and new throws area that will be officially launched next month.
“We are back and we are back for the long haul,” said Professor Bruce Kidd, the Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the U of T and a 1964 Canadian Olympian. “I came here at age 15 in 1958 as a high school student to train with the university’s track team under Hal Brown and Fred Foot. Track and field was central at U of T in the 1950s and 1960s when it was a major sport.
“Major international events in the summer attracted crowds of close to 20,000 and several world class Olympians ran here, including Harry Jerome, Bill Crothers, Peter Snell and John Carlos. Varsity Stadium back then also hosted the Police Games, the Canadian Relay Championships and international invitational events.”
Between May 19 and June 10, Varsity will host 12 major elementary school events with over 1,000 participants competing each day. The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championships will take place June 4-6 and the Canadian Track and Field championships will also return to the city for the first time since 1972 at the U of T facility June 25-28.
Bolt, who won three gold medals in the Beijing Olympics and became the first athlete since Carl Lewis to win the 100- and 200-metre Olympics events, is the main draw on the June 11 card that also includes reigning Olympic decathlete champion, Bryan Clay of the United States, Canadian Tyler Christopher who finished fifth in his heat in the 400-metre event at last year’s Beijing Games, American high jumper, Chaunte Howard and three-time Olympian, Ato Stephens of Trinidad & Tobago, who finished fifth in the 400-metre final in Beijing.
In addition, Durham residents, Perdita Felicien and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, will go head-to-head in the 110-metre hurdles. Felicien, a two-time world champion, missed last year’s Olympics because of injury while Lopes-Schliep captured the bronze medal and in the process became the first Canadian woman to win a medal in track and field since the1992 Games and the first Canadian track and field athlete to medal since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
“I am excited to be competing in front of my hometown fans,” said Scarborough-born Lopes-Schliep, who now lives in Whitby. “To have someone like Usain here will certainly help to bolster the sport’s profile. He’s a phenomenal athlete.
This will be the Jamaica sprinter’s second appearance in an athletics meet in Canada. He won a gold medal in the 200-metre final at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Quebec six years ago, making him the championship’s youngest ever gold medalist at age 16.
“The Festival of Excellence” program starts at 6 p.m. and will include the high jump and 400-metre and mile races for men and women, the men’s 800-metre event and the men’s 100-metre sprint.
Prior to the main event, nearly 360 competitors from 12 schools in the Greater Toronto Area and southwestern Ontario will take part in a special event put on by the festival organizers and International Fun and Team Athletics run by former Canadian high jump champion, Milt Ottey. Each participant will run 200-metres in a relay aimed at breaking Kidd’s 47-year-old Canadian junior 5,000-metre record of 14:01.04.
Concurrent with the unique relay, young people from elementary schools and Toronto community housing will take part in a decathlon that seeks to promote childhood fun and increase physical activity participation.
“The Festival of Excellence is more than Usain Bolt,” said Geoff Arnoldi of the Arnoldi group which creates and builds market identity for sports brands. “We are showcasing the next generation of athletes in this city and province and also providing kids with an opportunity to get involved in track and field.”
Organizers plan to install 1,800 temporary seats at the stadium’s west end on Devonshire Place to complement the 5,000 permanent seats on the opposite side of the field.