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Shawn Barber crashes out of pole-vault final as Canada’s medal hopes dwindle

Canada’s Shawn Barber ekes over the bar during the men’s pole-vault final in London on Aug. 8, 2017.

Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Canada's woes at the world athletics championships have compounded with injuries, illness and now a poor showing from a key medal hopeful.

Shawn Barber came into London as the defending champion in the pole vault, but he could only manage an eighth-place finish on Tuesday, crashing out of the event after just the second height. Barber, 23, has not been in great form since winning a gold medal at the last world championships in 2015 in Beijing. He finished a disappointing 10th at the Rio Olympics last year, and has not jumped particularly well this season.

"I'm disappointed," Barber said Tuesday. "I think it's just between the ears for me. The weather was good, the atmosphere was good. I couldn't line up everything the way I needed to."

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The Canadian track and field team had come to London on something of a high after winning six medals at the Rio Olympics last summer and eight at the world championships in 2015 in Beijing. Head coach Glenroy Gilbert hoped to better the 2015 medal total, but a string of bad luck and some subpar performances have taken a toll. Two medal hopefuls, sprinter Andre De Grasse and high jumper Derek Drouin, withdrew before their events because of injuries and other members of the Canadian team have been felled by a stomach virus that has swept through the team's hotel in central London. With half the competition over, Canada's highest placing so far has been a sixth-place finish by Matt Hughes in the men's steeplechase on Tuesday.

"We've definitely not had the greatest of meets, but I think that there is still a lot of positivity to come," said Brandon McBride, who finished last in the 800-metre final on Tuesday.

McBride, 23, took some consolation in making the final at this, his first major international competition, but he said he wasn't prepared for the more gruelling schedule of the championships, which included two rounds of qualifying.

"Ultimately, it came down to just going through the rounds," he said. "Coming from the [U.S. college system], we only have two rounds, semi-finals and finals, so I definitely wasn't used to running [1 minute 45 seconds] in the first two rounds and then having to come back again. … What hurts me the most is just not being able to get my team on the board. I wanted it for the team more than anything."

Barber, too, acknowledged the poor showing by Canada so far. "We've struggled a bit as a team and had some losses here and there, but I'm confident that our team is going to come back stronger and be ready for anything."

Hughes trailed the field for most of the steeplechase on Tuesday, but managed a strong finish to take sixth place in a season best time of 8:21.84. "I'm not really satisfied, to be honest," he said afterward. "I thought on a pretty good day, I could be fourth, and I was right there with a lap to go. Maybe if I didn't take two months with injury I would have been there. But I'm just going to take that as motivation leading forward for the next two or three years."

The best medal prospects now are Melissa Bishop in the women's 800 metres, Damian Warner in the decathlon and Mohammed Ahmed in the men's 5,000 metres. However, Canada could just as easily come home without any medals.

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The Canadians aren't the only team struggling with illness. Several other teams, including Germany, Ireland and Botswana, are also staying at the Tower Hotel, and many have also been struck down by the stomach virus. Health officials said that 30 athletes and support staff at the hotel have been affected. Tower Hotel management said the hotel was not the source of the illness and health officials are moving to quarantine sick athletes. Canadian officials reported nine athletes and staff have been ill, including marathoner Eric Gillis and sprinter Aaron Brown.

The biggest star affected so far has been Isaac Makwala of Botswana, a national hero in his country who was pulled out of the 200-metre qualifying rounds on Monday after he vomited in a waiting area before the race. He also had to withdraw from the 400-metre final on Tuesday, despite being among the favourites to win. Officials wouldn't even let him enter the stadium on Tuesday night to watch the race.

Makwala insisted on Tuesday that he was not ill and the head of Botswana's athletics federation, Falcon Sedimo, told BBC that track's ruling body, the IAAF, had not made it clear why the sprinter was pulled. "There have been no medical tests at all, it's just generalized assumptions because of the outbreak of sickness and he has just one of those symptoms," Sedimo said.

Makwala told the BBC that he didn't have the virus and only vomited because of nerves. "I was not that sick," he said. "I just vomited. Like any other athlete, I vomit. … I could have run because I did my warm-up well and I did everything well. I was ready to run … This is bad. I felt heartbroken yesterday. I was ready for this, I worked hard for this. So I feel like sabotaging or something. … I don't know because I don't have the full information about this."

The 400-metre winner, South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk, said he was disappointed that Makwala was not able to run and even offered to give the Botswanan his medal. "Obviously, there's a lot of fingers that are being pointed right now," van Niekerk said. "I would love him to have his fair opportunity. … I've got so much sympathy for him. I really wish that I could even give him my medal, to be honest with you. But this is sports. These things happen."

Video: Stomach bug strikes athletes at track and field worlds (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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