There have been a handful of decent rivalries in long-course triathlon’s relatively short history: Dave Scott vs. Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser vs. Erin Baker, Chris McCormack vs. Normann Stadler, Chris McCormack vs. Craig Alexander, and Chris McCormack vs. whoever he felt like speaking out about on any given day.
There have also been more subtle match-ups over the years that saw competitors face-off several times at a high level but didn’t include the style or amount of banter you’d expect from true rivals. Think Chrissie Wellington vs. Mirinda Carfrae, Leanda Cave vs. Julie Dibens, or Patrick Lange vs. Jan Frodeno vs. Sebastian Kienle.
So why are true rivalries in a sport where athletes race shoulder-to-shoulder so rare? It’s likely a combination of things. First, the best of the best rarely race head-to-head in long-course triathlon. Beyond the Ironman World Championship, there are very few races where every top athlete makes a start. Even the Ironman 70.3 World Championship rarely includes every top name. Maybe that will change with the introduction of events like The Collins Cup, but for now it’s the reality. Second, triathlon is a relatively niche sport where—especially on the professional and sponsorship side—everybody knows everybody. Once you add in the fact that it’s already difficult for most pros to make a living, you end up a recipe that leaves many athletes cautious about friendly trash talking or one-up banter.
In practice, though, it’s a bit of a bummer for our sport. Triathlon and its revenue-generating properties are largely participant-based. Walk around any expo of a 70.3 or Ironman event and you’ll find that many competitors have little to no idea who the sport’s top professionals are. They’re in it for the fitness, lifestyle, and community. But the triathlete pays attention when there’s something to pay attention to, when there’s a rivalry worth watching and getting excited about—like the shoulder-to-shoulder battle at the 70.3 in St. George this past weekend. Rivalries at the professional level give fans something to be invested in and inspired by.
Remember when Macca and Crowie used to go back and forth (mostly with the banter coming from Macca’s end)? It provided excitement in the days leading up to the race and added an element of drama for race day. Of the rivalry, Alexander said: “People like to play it up and Chris likes to talk, but I’m immune to all of that. With some people, it doesn’t matter how often you beat them you can’t win.” Even in denying the rivalry, Alexander offered some pointed words that got us all excited to see them battle out on course.