In a relatively surprise release on June 9, the ITU announced that mixed relay triathlon would be added to the program for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Though the ITU and its athletes had been campaigning vigorously on social media for the past few months, according to USAT officials the decision was not expected to come down until later this summer. So what does it all mean?
The first thing to understand is that mixed relay is not the style of relay held at your local neighborhood triathlon, where each athlete does one sport. In the Olympic version, each athlete does a swim, bike then run before handing off to the next teammate. The order of competitors is female/male/female/male, and the distance for each athlete at the Olympics will be a 300m swim, an 8km bike and a 2km run. “It is a fast and exciting format that requires athletes to go as hard as they can for about 20 minutes each,” says Kirsten Kasper, U.S. triathlete and reigning mixed relay world champion. “The mixed team relay has been one of my favorite events each year.”
Mixed relay has recently become popular due to the lead changes and the spectator-friendly events that allow for a smaller footprint (read: opposite of long-course racing). Major League Triathlon has been successfully operating their pro-only mixed relay in the U.S. since 2016 and has already attracted big names like American Olympian Ben Kanute and Australian Olympian Erin Densham. The races are short, webcasted live and incorporate a rarely-seen team aspect.
While the addition of another triathlon event may seem like a slam-dunk for elite triathletes looking to earn an Olympic spot, the reality could be slightly counterintuitive. According to USAT’s High Performance General Manager, Andy Schmitz, the IOC won’t be adding any athletes to triathlon overall. “I think the case will be that the athletes who qualify individually will also be in the relay,” he says. In other words, the U.S. will not be sending an additional four athletes to Tokyo for the team, alongside the individuals. In fact, they may send even less than before.
In an ironic twist, some of the athletes who pushed so hard for mixed relay’s inclusion on social media may actually be left out of Tokyo because of the new setup. Schmitz says that one of the possible scenarios in 2020 could be a reduction in the amount of countries that can send three athletes per gender (like the U.S. always has). This is intended to allow more countries to field a mixed relay team. As it stood in Rio, only 14 full teams could have been created by federations that had two or more athletes in both men’s and women’s races. Schmitz said another scenario could be that no countries are able to send three athletes.
Furthermore, with such a strong likelihood of a medal in the mixed relay, it’s possible that the individuals selected to go to Tokyo may not even be the best at the Olympic distance. Schmitz says that in order to ensure a team medal, an athlete with excellent super-sprint abilities may be chosen over a higher-ranked Olympic-distance athlete—if that Olympic-distance athlete isn’t an individual medal contender. Then in the individual event, that athlete may end up playing more of a domestique role.
“There’s certainly more subjectivity,” says Schmitz. “It’s kind of like picking a soccer team or a volleyball team. You’re certainly going to still use objective markers, but it opens the door for us to be more strategic on how we compose our team to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome across all three events.”
Regardless, the announcement should be good news for fans looking toward their country’s medal count, as the U.S. team won mixed relay world championships last year in Hamburg, Germany, in front of an estimated 160,000 fans. “Last year’s race is probably one of my favorite moments of my triathlon career,” Kasper says. “To be able to compete for something bigger than yourself and represent team USA is always a very special opportunity.”
The event was so popular in Europe that more viewers tuned into the 2015 edition than the Tour de France that year (1.49 million on German broadcaster ARD). In other words, the U.S. should expect stiff competition from the Europeans. “We have one of the more consistent teams,” Schmitz says. “But the Brits will be the toughest competition overall.” Undoubtedly a Brownlee-led team, coupled with excellent British women like Non Stanford or Jodie Stimpson would be a strong medal threat.
Schmitz also adds that mixed relay’s inclusion into Tokyo will likely increase the opportunities for the U.S. team to sharpen its knives at the format more than just once per year. He expects other federations to see the possibility of another medal and send more teams to more events.
One of the non-world championship international-level events that Schmitz is excited about will be the British Triathlon Mixed Relay Cup held in September in Nottingham, U.K. The event is expected to draw 20,000 spectators and will be broadcast live on BBC one. While race officials are keeping their cards close about team commitments, they anticipate 20 international teams to compete, including the U.S. Strategically scheduled between WTS Stockholm in late August and the WTS Grand Final in Rotterdam a few weeks later, it’s likely that federations staying in Europe between the two major events will send teams. Of course, the next opportunity to watch international-level mixed relay is coming up in less than a month at the Mixed Relay World Championships on July 16 in Hamburg.
Regardless of how the selection plays out, another multisport event at the Olympics can only be a good thing. The excitement of the mixed relay event will likely draw more eyeballs and get more people interested in triathlon. “The mixed relay is something that can appeal to a broader array of fans,” Schmitz says. “It’s another gateway into the sport.”