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Conviction: Diversity And The Olympics

Beyond participation by more countries, triathletes need the chance to contend for more Olympic medals.

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Beyond participation by more countries, triathletes need the chance to contend for more Olympic medals.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Over the course of the two-year Olympic qualifying period, from June 1, 2010, until May 31, 2012, the International Triathlon Union has released more than 45 Olympic “simulations” on its website. These represent what the 55-athlete start lists would look like if the current standings represented the end of the qualification period—if the Olympics were to happen tomorrow.

For athletes and national federations, the critical tabulation in the simulations is the ranking of the top eight countries, whose points earn them coveted three-person teams. For the casual observer, the simulations might just be a quick route to a headache, with their columns upon rows upon columns dotted with yellow, red and green cells.

But if you have been following the points chase via the ITU’s simulations, you may have noticed the “new flag” athletes and the “tripartite commission” invitations. These are diversity initiatives promoted by the ITU and the International Olympic Commission.

What might throw some people off is the concept of “diversity.” Here we are talking about diversity of nationality, rather than ethnicity or race. International governing bodies, such as the IOC and ITU, pursue national diversity; it’s up to national federations and national Olympic committees to implement other diversity strategies if they choose.

So, what do these two diversity initiatives mean for triathlon?

There is one “new flag” spot granted to each continent per gender. It’s to be given to an athlete whose country does not have a triathlete already on the start list—not, as the name might make it seem, to an athlete from a country who has never before had a triathlete go to the Olympics. So it’s not a historical designation—it’s just based on the current composition of athletes. The new flag rule is aimed at increasing national diversity within the triathlon events at the Olympics. For example, Chile’s Barbara Riveros Diaz raced in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a “new flag” spot.

The “tripartite commission” invitations, on the other hand, are designed to increase national diversity across the entire Olympic Games. Each sport has a tripartite commission. The tripartite commission consists of the IOC, the Association of National Olympic Committees, and the sport’s governing body (in our case, the ITU). For triathlon the tripartite commission invites up to two athletes per gender whose countries are underrepresented in the Games as a whole. Tripartite invitations in 2008 went to Omar Tayara of Syria and Flora Duffy of Bermuda.

Duffy’s case demonstrates the benefit of flexibility these diversity initiatives create. She earned her Olympic start outright based on points, but granting her the tripartite invitation brought another athlete onto the start list who would not have been able to race with a tripartite or new flag invite.

These two initiatives are not designed to bring unqualified athletes onto the start pontoon—new flag and tripartite commission athletes must be within the top 140 athletes in the Olympic points rankings. While it’s true that the Olympics are not contested by the absolute top-ranked 55 triathletes in the world, thanks to national quotas and discretionary rules such as these diversity initiatives, nonetheless all of these athletes earn their spots by being among the best.

Is diversity something that triathlon should value? No other triathlon series arranges start lists with an eye toward representation. Why does this one?

Beyond just being an Olympic rule, allowing nationalities to be criteria in the Olympic start list helps spread the sport to new fans and athletes, a feature that benefits even non-Olympic triathlon. And these two initiatives help developing athletes: Riveros Diaz has progressed from a new flag athlete to top 10 in the rankings, earning her start spot outright.

The value of diversity brings up a separate point: Why isn’t there more diversity of triathlons in the Olympics? Triathlon awards six medals, three per gender, to a single Olympic-distance draft-legal event. Meanwhile, cycling awards a total of 54 medals: six each in BMX and mountain biking, 12 in road cycling, and a whopping 30 on the track (but still no kilo, to the chagrin of many). With the ITU’s fleet of multisport events, including sprint triathlon, long-course triathlon, triathlon mixed relay (formerly called team triathlon) and duathlon on the road, and cross triathlon on trails, it would seem there are plenty of viable candidates.

The limiting factor, according to the IOC, is space in the athletes’ village. Thus rather than promoting medal events that would require a whole new set of athletes, those who specialize in long-course or in off-road for example, the ITU is pursuing new medal events to be contested by the existing pool of athletes.

This is the rationale behind sprint and mixed relay events, which now have their own world championships. The ITU has successfully campaigned to get triathlon mixed relay into the Commonwealth Games. Both of these pull from the pool of current ITU stars—Riveros Diaz and London medal contender Jonathan Brownlee of Great Britain are the reigning 2011 sprint world champions. If the ITU can get sprint or triathlon mixed relay into the Olympics, the next step will be to spread its medal offerings to a broader range of elite triathletes. For triathlon, this will be a fruitful diversity strategy.

More “Conviction” articles from Courtenay Brown.