Olympic Qualification 101

With the new inclusion of mixed relays into the Olympic triathlon program, the process of booking a ticket to Tokyo just got a little trickier—and perhaps more subjective.


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With the new inclusion of mixed relays into the Olympic triathlon program, the process of booking a ticket to Tokyo just got a little trickier—and perhaps more subjective.

The “Road to Rio” may have had a better ring to it, but the “Road to Tokyo” officially got underway this month at the ITU World Triathlon Yokohama. Triathlon will make its sixth appearance in the Olympic Games in 2020 as an individual event and its first as a mixed gender relay event. There are plenty of storylines to follow during the two-year qualification period, but the process to determine how many of the 110 Olympic slots will go to which countries is far from simple. Here’s the general breakdown:

Fifty-five men and 55 women will be Olympic triathletes in 2020. The total quota for the three triathlon events (men, women, and mixed sprint relay) is 110, and that number is unaffected by the addition of the mixed relay. There will be at least 16 countries competing in the mixed relay, but based on how many countries qualify at least two men and two women, it could work out to closer to 18 or even 20. At a minimum, 64 of the 110 triathletes will compete in the first-ever Olympic Triathlon Mixed Relay.

National Olympic Committees (NOCs) like USAT and British Triathlon want to get as many of those 110 quota places as possible between now and May of 2020, when the qualification period ends. Each NOC can get up to six places (three men and three women), and they can secure those places based on either their athletes’ Individual Olympic Qualification Ranking or Relay Olympic Qualification Ranking.

For each gender, 51 of the 55 spots are “qualification spots,” determined from the ITU Olympic Rankings (different than the ITU World Rankings, so don’t worry about those.) For the remaining four places, two go to the host country (Japan) and the other two are what’s called “Tripartite Commission Invitation Places” for developing tri-nations.

Twenty-six of the 51 “qualification spots” are determined by the ITU Individual Olympic Rankings between now and May of 2020 (after the Yokohama event). Basically, the 26 highest ranked athletes qualify one slot for their country—not necessarily for themselves, each NOC gets to decide who represents their country. Each National Olympic Committee (NOC) can have a maximum of three athletes per gender, so if Great Britain has three men and women ranked in the top 26 (which they will), then they’re awarded the maximum six spots and they’ve filled their quota. It’s important to note that in order to have three athletes per gender, an NOC must have a minimum of three athletes ranked in the top 30 of the Olympic ranking, so that’ll be a major area of focus for the bigger federations over the next two years.

The next five spots will go to the highest ranked country that didn’t have an athlete in the top 26. One spot is available for each “continent,” keeping in mind that for the ITU’s purposes, the “Americas” is the entire Western hemisphere. So if Egypt is the highest-ranked African NOC without an athlete in the top 26, the Egyptian Triathlon Federation will get to select one athlete to compete at the Games.

So now we’ve filled out 35 of the 55 spots per gender (26 highest ranked, plus five “continental” spots, plus two for Japan and two for growing federations). Fourteen of the remaining quota places will be based on the ITU Relay Olympic Qualification Rankings, determined by how well countries perform at the handful of ITU World Triathlon Relay Series races between now and March of 2020.

It’s important to note that the relay qualification period ends two months before the individual qualification period, so those 28 quota places (14 per gender) will be given out first (in March of 2020).

The seven highest-ranked countries in the relay rankings will be given two quota places (one per gender). Say Mexico finishes sixth in the relay rankings; they’ll be awarded two quota places. If they then qualify one man and one woman based on the individual rankings, then boom; they’ll have a relay in Tokyo. For countries like Great Britain that finish in the top seven of the relay rankings and fill out their quota based on their individual rankings, it’s just a matter of determining which six athletes to select for the individual race and which four of those six will make up their relay.

So with those 14 places added to the 35, we’re left with just six remaining quota places per gender. How will those get decided? That’s where this finally gets fun. Sometime in April or May of 2020, at a to-be-determined location, any federation that hasn’t qualified a relay for Tokyo will be invited to compete in a top-three-take-all battle royal for the final six quota spots. It’ll be must-see triathlon TV, and luckily for us, it’s the ITU so we’ll actually get to see it.

While the addition of the relay may have a small effect on the number of countries represented, it could have a big effect on the way NOCs allocate their slots. For example, the U.S. should have no problem getting three spots in the women’s race. While selection criteria are always subject to change, historically, those first two spots are awarded based on the highest-ranked women, but the third spot is discretionary. That could change depending on the strategy USAT wants to use to put together the mixed relay team, leaving more than one spot up to USAT discretion. The USAT selection committee could decide to select athletes with skill sets specific to the relay (i.e. someone really fast in short bursts) versus women who might perform better in the longer individual race. For the 2016 Rio Olympic qualification, USAT allowed Americans to automatically earn a slot with a top-eight finish at the Rio Test Event in 2015 (with a limit of two per gender). It will be interesting to see if USAT (and other NOCs) will allow for that level of objectivity this time around, given the complicated mixed relay component.

In other words, NOCs like USAT and British Tri will just have the tough decision of choosing which four of their six athletes will make up their relay, and the upcoming World Triathlon Relay Series (which kicks off June 7 in Nottingham, England) will play a big role in those decisions. Expect to see a number of different athletes get a shot to see how well they perform in the new format.

“As we develop our qualification criteria for 2020, the mixed relay is one area that’s tough,” says USAT CEO Rocky Harris. “This is where everyone is trying to figure out an objective way to select a mixed relay team. We have our mixed relay criteria for this year, and that’s a good guide to see where it might go. But I could see a lot changing over the next six months or year. The criteria is out there, but I’m guessing it will change over time.”

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