2020 Tokyo Olympics: Here’s How U.S. Triathletes Will Qualify

The first qualification event is just a few weeks away.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics triathlons are just over a year away: men will compete on July 27, women will compete on July 28, and the first-ever Olympic mixed relay event will take place on Aug. 1. The year leading up to the Olympics is by far the most exciting part of draft-legal short-course racing. Olympic berth dreams will come true, hearts will be broken, and—with the increased attention on the sport—we’ll get to know the athletes a little bit better. Adding to the buzz this Olympic cycle will be the inclusion of the fast-paced mixed relay format. As thrilling as the upcoming months will be, the qualification process is also crazy confusing. Here’s everything you need to know about how U.S. triathletes will earn their spots on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic triathlon starting lines.

Why the Mixed Relay Addition Matters

While the inclusion of mixed relay into the Olympic program is great news, it adds a whole new element to the Olympic qualification process. For the mixed relay, each qualified country will compete with two men and two women. 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.

This is all important because only athletes who compete in the individual Olympic events are eligible to be a part of the mixed relay teams. The skills needed to succeed at the individual events and the mixed relay can be quite different, leaving countries with the challenge of finding the balance that will result in the best chance for medals in all events.

How Many Athletes Get to Go?

While the International Triathlon Union has set in place a qualification system that will decide which countries will receive each of the 110 spots (55 men and 55 women), it is up to each country’s NOC (National Olympic Committee) to decide which individual athletes get to fill those spots. The maximum spots any country can earn is three men and three women for a total of six. The process of earning those spots is (as you can probably guess) very complicated, but basically, athletes and mixed relay teams compete from May 11, 2018 to May 31, 2020 working to earn points (you can read the nitty-gritty here).

There has always been a huge variety in how NOCs decide to allocate the spots and the mixed relay is adding a whole new twist to the equation. Do you let the athletes prove they can perform under pressure and earn their Olympic slot on the race course? Or, do you leave it entirely in the hands of a committee? Sometimes NOCs decide to “sacrifice” a spot and choose a “domestique” athlete to help a potential medal contender through the swim and bike. The ups and downs of deciding the best way to hand out spots have led to plenty of controversy in the past.

How the U.S. Athletes Will Qualify

Earlier this year we speculated that USA Triathlon would choose a more subjective system than in the past to leave more flexibility for building an ideal mixed relay team. The reality is that the 2020 qualification process for American triathletes is not all that different from what it was in 2016. Before we dive into the details of how Americans will earn Olympic berths, it’s worth noting that the American women are significantly stronger than the American men. The women will easily earn three spots and it’s very plausible that a potential medal contender could be left off of the team because of the depth. If things ended today, only two American men would make the Olympic starting list. Only two spots for the men means that the two U.S. male triathletes will compete in the mixed relay (assuming the U.S. holds onto its mixed relay spot). This gives USAT a lot less flexibility in building their mixed relay team.

There are two automatic selection events for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team: the ITU World Olympic Qualification Event in Tokyo from Aug. 15-16 and the 2020 ITU World Triathlon Series stop in Yokohama, Japan on May 16-17.

Up to two U.S. athletes per gender may earn automatic selection. The first opportunity will take place at the Tokyo test event:

  • If two or more U.S. athletes reach the podium, the two with the best results will be auto-selected.
  • If only one U.S. athlete finishes on the podium, that athlete will be auto-selected and the next athlete finishing within the top-eight overall will also earn automatic selection.
  • If no U.S. athlete finishes in the top-three overall at this event, then the highest-placing athlete finishing in the top-eight overall will earn automatic selection.
  • If no U.S. athletes finish in the top eight, no one will be auto-selected.

If there are any spots (of the four automatic ones) remaining, there will be an opportunity for Americans to qualify in Yokohama.

  • If there is one spot left (per gender), the first U.S. athlete finishing on the podium in Yokohama will earn automatic selection.
  • If there are two spots left (per gender), then the top-two U.S. athletes to hit the podium in Yokohama and the highest-placed athlete finishing within the top-eight overall will be selected to the team.
  • If no athletes have been selected at the Tokyo test event or via a podium finish in Yokohama, the highest-placed athlete finishing within the top-eight overall in Yokohama will be selected to the team.

All remaining spots not filled at one of the two auto-selection events will be selected via discretion by the USA Triathlon Games Athletes Selection Committee. This means that in theory a maximum of all slots could be selected by committee, with at the very least one being selected by committee (assuming the men and women both earn three slots).

What Will Likely Happen?

It’s risky to overly speculate because things change so fast on the ITU circuit, but we’ll do it anyway: The American women have performed so well that we’d be surprised if both auto-select spots don’t go at the test event next month. Because the American women are among the strongest contingents in the history of triathlon at the Olympics, this will leave the committee with a very tough decision about the remaining discretionary spot—who will go and who will stay home?

The selection of the American men will likely be a different story. The Tokyo event will be hugely important for every athlete (of all countries), and the American men have struggled to perform on big stages. Last month, Matt McElroy became the first American male to finish on a World Triathlon Series podium in 10 years. That’s an entire decade of waiting for the U.S. men’s team. It’s possible that both spots could disappear (or even that a third spot is earned somewhere along the way), but we’re guessing the committee will have to make at least one decision about the men’s Olympic team.

Who’s in the Running?

Looking at the starting list for Tokyo test event is the easiest way to see who will vie for a coveted Olympic spot. The starting list currently shows the following Americans.

Men (Competing Aug. 15)

Kevin McDowell
Tony Smoragiewicz
Morgan Pearson
Matthew McElroy
Eli Hemming

Women (Competing Aug. 16)

Taylor Knibb
Taylor Spivey
Kirsten Kasper
Katie Zaferes

The bottom line? It’s about to get exciting. If you’ve never followed the ITU, now is a great time to start. Put the Tokyo ITU World Olympic Qualification Event on your calendar and tune in at