Renato Canova
Renato Canova in Kenya, coaching

© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated

In 2012, the Chinese Athletics Association had just witnessed their worst year in athletics all-time and decided it was time to make a move that would end up taking nearly two years to complete.

Renato Canova, famed coach of many of the world’s best middle and long distance runners – mostly East Africans – made the transition to China, to coach their top athletes, for the purpose of restoring competitiveness to the Chinese athletics team.

Canova was approached in 2012, however, was not satisfied with the opportunity that was offered and turned them down, “I was asked by Chinese Federation to start a project for enhancing level of Chinese athletes (middle and long distances). This happened during a period of three weeks between the end of November and the beginning of December 2012,” said the 70-year-old Italian.

“They offered me to coach a group of marathon runners (all women), but I was not interested,” said Canova, who has been responsible for the world’s best distance runners for some time and felt that if he was going to make a move, he wanted a greater, more appropriate responsibility. After an agreement was reached, that saw him retain his stable of East Africans, he added the world’s best 5,000m/10,000m runner in Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. Bekele is now scheduled to compete in the 2015 Virgin London Marathon, in what is being billed by Let’s Run as potentially the most competitive marathon ever.

The London event will feature Wilson Kipsang, the World Marathon Majors Champion for 2014. Kipsang has run as fast as 2:03:23, which is the third fastest official marathon performance, all-time and the former world record from 2013. The field will also have the current world record holder Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) scheduled to run, as well as Emmanuel Mutai with his best of 2:03:13, which is the second fastest official performance all-time. He owns the current course record of 2:04:40 from his 2011 win. The next eight ranked athletes are:

Eliud Kipchoge – Kenya – 2:04:05
Ayele Abshero – Ethiopia – 2:04:23
Sammy Kitwara – Kenya – 2:04:28
Tsegaye Mekonnen – Ethiopia – 2:04:32
Stanley Biwott – Kenya – 2:04:55
Kenenisa Bekele – Ethiopia – 2:05:04
Tilahun Regassa – Ethiopia – 2:05:27
Samuel Tsegay – Eritrea – 2:07:28

It will be interesting to see if Canova can help Bekele take the next step to finish near world record time or at least mix it up until the very end of the marathon with Kipsang, Kimetto and company. Bekele has had a very good start to his marathon career, having run three with a best of 2:05:04 in Paris, France in 2014.

Canova got his way with the Chinese Association as he negotiated for an offer more suited to his strengths. “In the month of March 2013, the person responsible of the Department of Endurance flew directly to Kenya and came to Iten to speak again with me.  I told him I could be interested in working at 360°, to try to change the current situation for all middle and long distances, since 2012 was the worst year for Chinese runners.”

“This project could involve several points: talent research, lecturing in the various provinces, change of race calendar, possibility to compete abroad and improvement of general methodological knowledge. And in this case I could be interested and motivated”, said Canova.

The Chinese Association invited him to stay for two weeks at the end of May to watch the National Games marathon that was to take place on May 18th. They also offered for him to stay for two weeks at their training camp that they had for marathon training leading up to the Moscow IAAF World Track and Field Championships. Of all the different events in athletics, only marathon runners in China qualified for Moscow. “I had the opportunity to know some athletes and some coaches, and started to know something more about their organization and their calendar, from this stay.”

In September Canova was invited back, this time during the period of their national meet.  “We discussed about the contract, and the type of work I had in my mind in order to accept their offer.  “They accepted my requests, and from November 1, 2013 I started my activity with Chinese Federation, my contract is until the 2016 Rio Olympics.”

Canova took 15 Chinese athletes to Iten in February of 2014. During this time, he could keep an eye on many of his African athletes, for example Florence Kiplagat, who was training for an attempt at the world record in the half marathon distance, which she achieved in Barcelona in February by finishing in the time of 65:12.

Canova told Athletics Illustrated, “That was our main seasonal goal. While there, I could better organize the system used for following my Kenyan athletes, who continued to follow my training plans, some of them are Caleb Ndiku, Thomas Longosiwa, Abel Kirui and Jonathan Maiyo. I was to prepare programs for some young coach who was working with some of the top young athletes, such as Faith Kipyegon.  At the same time, I improved also the same type of organization in Ethiopia, where I prepare training plans for top marathon runners of two different management teams: GSC with Jos Hermens and DAP of Gianni Demadonna.”

One group of athletes that Canova was coaching included, Tsegaye Kebede, Abera Kuma, Ayele Abshero, and Ayele Tessema Abshero. In the second group had Tsegaye Mekonnen, Guye Adola, Tamirat Tola, Yacob Jarso, Shumi Dechase, Deressa Chimsa, Dino Sefir, Shami Abdullah and Seboka Tola and Gemedu Degefo.

Asked if there is a conflict with coaching outside of China he said, “There is no conflict in what I do with Kenyans and Ethiopians and my activity with Chinese Federation, because they are interested in women activity only, and all the marathon runners I follow in Africa (apart Florence Kiplagat) are men.”

“My work in China starts to produce some change after a difficult beginning.  In Asian Games, we showed an athlete running 1’59″48 in 800m (previous PB 2’02”), the winner of silver in 10,000m (31’53”) and bronze in 5,000m (15’12”) who can become a strong marathon runner, the winner of silver in 3,000 steeple (9’35”), and the mentality of this group has already changed for the better, ” he said.

Currently (January and February 2015), Canova has all athletes in Ethiopia to stay in the hotel that is owned by Bekele. Bekele’s London debut will be less than four months away.

Asked how he manages to keep track of his athletes from Africa he said, “What I ask my collaborators in Kenya and Ethiopia is to give me the full report, every week, of what the best athletes really do. Looking at the results, this system seems to work very well, achieving also another of my goals: to create new coaches with knowledge of the right methodology, able to produce in the future the top runners who can have a long career with the opportunity to improve year after year. In Africa, it’s not difficult to find athletes of high talent able to run very fast without coach, but is not possible to find athletes able to last at the top without right methodological education, and I work in that direction.”

He added, “My last consideration: working with a lot of marathon runners capable of running under 2:06 – 2:05 – 2:04, I find sometimes athletes, still naïve, that can improve of five or more minutes only because never they had idea about proper training.  What a lot of people think about the times in marathon is laughable (all doped for running under 2:07 or something like this).

With the talent they have, and the motivation they put in training, it’s normal for them to achieve times that for European or American seem impossible.  But I know that in short time some of them can run near 2:02 without using any help (also legal).”

Canova, as often reported, continues to believe that the top athletes do not benefit from performance enhancing drugs. He is also steadfast about WADA being tougher on drug cheats, so that the athletes who do work very hard and compete clean are able to compete at a world level, on an even playing field. “And for this reason I’m the first asking very tough penalties for cheaters, who destroy the image of the top runners giving the idea that they use advanced and sophisticated doping, WHILE THEY RUN COMPLETELY CLEAN (and the fact the best are all clean is also the reason because I don’t think EPO can really give advantage to this type of athletes, when they follow proper hard training.”

Marathon season is not too far away and 2015 is an IAAF World Track and Field Championships year with the meet taking place in in Beijing, China from the 22nd to the 30th of August. It will be interesting to see the effects that Canova has on the Chinese athletes, as well as the great Kenenisa Bekele.