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Commentary: The Men’s Olympic Race Was A Beautiful Disaster

In many ways, the men’s Olympic tri event was the version of triathlon we all experience—messy, unpredictable, discouraging, but still sometimes inspiring.

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Our sport, even at the absolute highest level, is pretty often a weird s***show.

While on one hand, it’s absolutely appropriate to react in abject horror while a TV boat blocks about a third of the best male short-course triathletes in the world from starting an event that has been five years (and in many cases, a lifetime) in the making. But on the other hand, who hasn’t been in a tri when something just blindingly stupid happens that’s out of your control? From there, all you can do is absorb that overhand right of ridiculousness and counterpunch that dumb day right back in it’s freaking face. We don’t do tri because it’s easy or certain or predictable, we do it because it usually isn’t.

And why should our Olympics look any different? This isn’t track with its perfect distances and typically predictable championship running tactics. This isn’t swimming with its constant world-record performances that happen at the level of thousandths of a second. This isn’t basketball or softball with all of the support and drama that happens when you have teammates. Triathlon is messy and unpredictable and sometimes a little wild and dumb.

So it makes sense that the men’s race started off, not with a bang, but with a groan: a collective groan from everyone watching around the world as that boat sat in front of the start of the race (or conversely, we could lay the blame where it belongs, most likely with the starting official and the procedures that somehow didn’t prepare to efficiently call them back after a bad start, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). But in that moment, with nerves appropriately rattled and competitors suspiciously eyeing those who still stood on the pontoon, dry as a bone, and without that extra 100+ meters in their arms and legs, triathlon became more triathlon-y—more like the mess the average triathlete is used to. And as they all finally dove into the murky brown, 85-degree water, I’m sure many of them just couldn’t wait to get right back out of it.

Let’s put it this way: If the Olympic tri had a Facebook event page, I’m sure a few of the racers would have gone back to their hotel (or cell) after the race and crafted a strongly worded post. That they would “take their money elsewhere next time they want to race—maybe to an event that’s smaller and less corporate.” Or maybe they’d email IOC head Thomas Bach for a refund and then complain that he never got back to them.

From that botched start in that soupy water, we saw a lot of the same drama you’d find at any local tri—just amplified by the crushing expectations of one’s entire country and captured by hundreds of cameras (yes, including that camera, boat guy). We saw some of the old heads of tri humbled by the new guard (Javier Gomez). We saw medal favorites lose focus, make mistakes, and admittedly have a bad day (Morgan Pearson). We saw fantastic, inspiring performances from racers we barely even gave a chance to, but who pushed through incredible odds just to stand on the start line (Kevin McDowell). We saw super-talented, supremely gifted young guns simply content with their place on the podium, unwilling to turn themselves inside out for more (Alex Yee). We saw absolute aerobic monsters wrestle their own bodies into the ground and want it more than anyone else (Kristian Blummenfelt).

All of these characters appear in many of our own local races: We see the old guy still fighting for the age-group podium even though he may have passed his prime. We see people epically fail for one reason or another. We see beautiful displays of trathletes overcoming illness and personal struggles, just to blossom and bloom out on the race course for all to be inspired by. We see people who are just so dang gifted race just fine and look like they just rolled out of bed. We see people racing out of their minds, flaying themselves in the final stretch, just to run away from the people behind them. (There’s something eerily familiar about watching a slightly balding guy in a too-tight, see-through race suit screaming at the finish line—it could be the Olympics or it could be a local sprint tri.)

Sure, everyone will say, “Oh, this was a weird Olympics in a weird year, and the men’s race was an odd result of that,” but I think the men’s race was the most prototypical “triathlon” Olympic tri event we’ve ever seen. Weirdness isn’t just an exception to the rule in tri, but weirdness is the rule. The screwups and the fails and the unrealistic expectations and the once-in-a-lifetime performances are all a part of that messy weird mix that can happen on any given Saturday morning. That’s because, at its heart, no matter how hard we try to polish it up, triathlon is kind of a s***show, and that’s ok.