Opinion: Triathlon Has an Olympic Qualifying Problem

Fans are pumped for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. So why aren't we excited about triathlon Olympic qualification?

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If you’re a fan of endurance sports, then you’ve probably heard: The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are this weekend and a lot of people are running (including quite a few triathletes). Over 500 women and 260 men qualified for the Trials race and nearly 700 will line up in Atlanta on Saturday. 

If you’re also an endurance athlete yourself—and I’m betting you are—then you’re probably also aware of athletes you know who have been chasing that OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifying time) for the last year or so. Maybe it’s the fast guy in your Tuesday night track group or the one friend you can’t quite keep up with. I live in Sacramento and I swear everyone I know ran the California International Marathon here, which is known for fast times, and the groups of people chasing their OTQ were so huge it even sparked social media jokes and emotional photo gallery montages.

There goes the OTQ train!

Here’s why this matters:

  1. It’s gotten a lot of people excited about running.
  1. It’s gotten a lot of people excited about watching running.

To qualify for the Marathon Trials, women had to run a ‘B’ standard of 2:45 and men had to run 2:19. Whether you think the times should be slower or the fields smaller is a different debate. But what has been clear and nearly undisputed is that 2:45 standard reinvigorated women’s sub-elite distance running. Backed by the commitment of the Atlanta Track Club to support every single person who qualified and to celebrate them, chasing the OTQ this Olympic cycle made marathoning exciting for the (semi-)regular runner. It gave a huge group of women something to chase. They then took that passion and excitement back to their communities and running groups—whether they made the standard or just missed it.

Then all those people tuning in this weekend to watch their friends or their acquaintances or just to watch the race they’ve now heard about are going to get to see something genuinely rare: a make or break race. Athletes are either in the top three or they’re not. That puts them either on the Olympic team or not. No wiggle room, no subjectivity. 

As running moves towards a more complicated Olympic qualifying system of points and rankings and standards, this may not be the case in the future. But for now it is. For now, the Marathon Trials this weekend and the Track and Field Trials in June are some genuinely gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, white-knuckle TV.

Triathlon doesn’t have this.

Here’s how U.S. triathlon’s Olympic qualification works: If two or more athletes reach the podium at the first qualifying event, then the top two will auto-qualify. If one athlete is on the podium, then they will auto-qualify as will the next highest person in the top eight. If no athlete is on the podium, then the highest placed athlete in the top eight will auto-qualify. Only two athletes of each gender in total can auto-qualify. If there are any remaining slots after the first qualification event, then ditto rules on the second. If there are still spots remaining after both qualification events, then the remaining spots will be filled by a discretionary USAT committee.


Arguably, our system is fairer than running’s. It’s less at the mercy of any one given day, yet it also allows for an athlete to have a great day. It rewards both outstanding performances and gives some room to root for consistency. Arguably, it puts American triathletes in a better position to perform well at the Olympics too.

But it’s not exciting. And it doesn’t give us, regular triathletes, a chance to buy in.

Partially, we need to get a WTS race back on American soil. I understand why USAT wants the athletes who are going to race at the Olympics to prove themselves against Olympic-level competition. We can’t just hold our own national championship and declare a qualifier. These athletes need to compete at an ITU WTS race in order to be ready to race at that level. But when that WTS qualifying race was in San Diego (pictured above) it was so much more exciting for American fans, so much more fun.

Partially, we also need to make it easier to understand. I know it’s not that complicated. At least we don’t have the arbitrariness of the British selection. But there’s got to be a clearer mark to hit: top three or not, top eight or not.

And partially—and this is the part I don’t have an answer for—we need to do what the marathon did and get the buy in of all the sub-elites, create the excitement the 2:45 standard created among women chasing it around the country, bringing their running partners and groups and friends along with them. I’m not sure yet how we do that. It’s harder (if not impossible) to accomodate a large field in triathlon and ITU has certain standards you have to hit before you even get a WTS start. We can’t just hold an all-comers event and pay everyone’s way. 

I don’t have a solution, but we do have a problem: regular triathletes don’t identify with our Olympic hopefuls. Regular triathletes don’t identify with ITU racing much at all. They’ll never get to race on the blue carpet or draft in a pack. They’ll never get to dream of chasing an OTQ. And our sport is worse off for it.

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