Saudi Arabia’s Start in Triathlon

Saudi Arabia is known for many things: Oil. Skyscrapers. A culture steeped in Islamic heritage. The Great Mosque of Mecca. But multisport?

Photo: Facebook/Race Arabia

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With a move on brand for its über-innovative approach to racing, Super League Triathlon has tapped Neom, a futuristic mega-city being built in Saudi Arabia, as the site of its 2022 Grand Finale on Oct. 29. Neom (broadcast live on Outside Watch), which is being built in the desert along the Red Sea, could potentially become home to millions of residents. In the meantime, it’ll host some of the fastest middle-distance athletes in the sport, including Georgia Taylor-Brown, Taylor Spivey, and Hayden Wilde. Here’s a look at the brief history of triathlon in Saudi Arabiaand how Super League landed there.

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Saudi Arabia is known for many things: Oil. Skyscrapers. A culture steeped in Islamic heritage. The Great Mosque of Mecca.

Triathlon is not one of them.

But that may be about to change. For the past few years, the buzz has been building around the sport within the country, thanks in part to a push from a newly-formed national federation and a couple of stand-out athletes. And now, Super League Triathlon is set to place Neom—a high-tech city being built along the coast of the Red Sea in the northwest part of the country—on the radar of those who follow the sport by hosting its Grand Finale event there on Oct. 29.

No doubt, triathlon in Saudi Arabia is in its infancy. Unlike the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the sport first gained traction in the mid-2000’s with deep-pocketed Sheiks funding big-time events with giant prize purses, Saudi Arabia has yet to host an Ironman-branded race. Actually, it hasn’t hosted many triathlons at all. According to an article in DQ Living Magazine, the country’s first-ever public triathlon took place in November of 2019. Held in the capital city of Riyadh, the DQ Triathlon featured a 400-meter pool swim, a 22-kilometer bike ride, and a 5-kilometer run. Just 22 people finished—the majority expats—and the race has not been held since.

However small and low-attended, the Riyadh race was a quiet indicator of how Saudi Arabia was making inroads in triathlon—perhaps, even, it was a warm up for the main event. After all, just a few months later, Super League Triathlon breathlessly introduced “Neom 2020: The Opener,” slated to take place in late March, 2020. Pitched as a “thrilling season opening spectacle that will see top triathletes try to take down All-Stars from the worlds of swim, bike, and run,” The Opener was also aimed to shine the spotlight on Neom, a smart-city said to be powered entirely by clean energy, which will include ports and enterprise areas, research centers, and sports and entertainment venues.

Things, of course, did not go to plan. The Opener was postponed on March 9, 2020 due to concerns about the spread of COVID, with organizers promising a new date towards the end of that year. But with the continuous uncertainty of the pandemic and Super League shifting its focus to the more COVID- (and viewer) friendly Arena Games, the group ultimately took Neom off the table for more than two years.

Triathlon continued to blossom throughout Saudi Arabia nevertheless. In November 2020, World Triathlon, the worldwide governing body of the sport, accepted the country as a National Federation by a vote during a virtual congress. About a year later, some 200 people participated in a sprint triathlon as part of a World Triathlon seminar aimed to educate potential leaders in the sport on how to grow the sport organically throughout the country.

Saudis have started to have their moments in the sport, too. Dina Al-Tayeb, a dentist and mother of three, emerged as a cultural icon in the country and throughout the Middle East after becoming the first Arab woman to not only complete an Ironman, but the first-ever Saudi to compete at the Ironman World Championships. Now a three-time Kona finisher, Al-Tayeb is so beloved that Häagen-Dazs renamed an ice cream flavor in her honor last March.

Then there’s been the influence of  Will Clarke—a 2008 Olympian for Great Britain and a 7:45 Ironman—who coaches a contingent of Saudi triathletes through his Riot Racing Club. One of those athletes? Mohammed Almarzouki, a father of two who’s been dubbed Saudi Arabia’s “fastest Ironman” after setting a national record of 9:57:08 at Ironman Kazakhstan. (Almarzouki, who finished tenth in his age-group, also earned a Kona slot for that effort.)

Mohammed Almarzouki, Saudi Arabian triathlete, qualifies for Kona
Mohammed Almarzouki qualifies for Kona at Ironman Kazakhstan. (Photo: SportGraf/Courtesy of Mohammed Almarzouki)

And on the draft-legal scene, younger male and female athletes are being tapped to potentially represent Saudi Arabia at an elite level. Last May, the Saudi Triathlon Federation hosted its first-ever training camp, where 10 athletes spent 21 days in the thin air of Abha (elevation: ~7,200ft.) to train and learn about the sport. The goal? To develop a squad of athletes who can compete at World Triathlon races and potentially the Olympics. (The Saudi Triathlon Federation team will officially represent the Kingdom for the first time during the World Triathlon Championship Finals at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island in late November.)

Given the building buzz surrounding triathlon in Saudi Arabia, the timing seems more ideal than ever to host a major event in the country. The Super League race is part of Neom’s Beach Games, a six-week-long event set to welcome hundreds of athletes from 25 countries to compete in  triathlon, as well as kitesurfing, beach football, mountain biking, and 3×3 basketball. “The NEOM Beach Games falls in line with Saudi Vision 2030’s goal of hosting global sports events and supports NEOM’s vision of becoming a globally recognized sports hub,” a statement read. “NEOM enjoys a milder climate than other areas in the region, creating an idyllic environment for the hosting of unique events that feature the world’s best athletes.”

While there won’t be any Saudis competing in the Super League event this month, there will be stars like American Taylor Spivey, Brits Georgia Taylor-Brown and Beth Potter, and Kiwi Hayden Wilde headlining the race–and vying for a piece of the $1.8 million prize pool in Super League’s grueling Enduro format—a non-stop burst of nine back-to-back super-sprint triathlon disciplines without any breaks.

“It’s ground-breaking, it’s extraordinary,” said Super League’s CEO, Michael Dhulst of the Neom race, adding that he hopes to contribute to a similar growth of triathlon in Saudi Arabia as he has seen in the neighboring UAE. “I’ve seen a lot of parallels [between the countries] and believe change can bring something positive. We don’t want to isolate. You can create positivity by engaging.”

The Super League Triathlon Grand Finale will be streamed live for free on Outside Watch here. Outside+ members will be able to access the race replay on-demand immediately after. Not an Outside+ memeber? Become one now for only $2.49/month!

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