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Every Question About The Tokyo Olympic Triathlon, Answered

Everything you want to know about this summer's Olympic triathlon event.

With the Tokyo Olympics finally just months away and the last qualification events underway, there are still some questions. How will it all work in the COVID era? Who gets to compete? How can I watch the Olympic triathlon races?

We’ll try to answer all your triathlon-related Olympics questions here. You can also check out all of our Olympics coverage.

Will there be an Olympics?

Probably. IOC officials have strongly said the Games will move forward, even as there is a surge of COVID cases in Japan, vaccination rates in the country remain low, and the Japanese public has expressed concerns about the Olympics being held. The World Triathlon Championship Series races in Yokohama, Japan this weekend will prove a crucial test of COVID protocols and how a high-level event can be held.

Will there be spectators and media at the Olympics?

No foreign spectators will be allowed into the country, and media and official dignitaries are expected to be sharply curtailed (and have to adhere to strict safety protocols and heavily limit their movements). However, Japanese officials have said they will not make a decision about domestic spectators at events until June.

What kind of COVID protocols do the athletes have to follow?

Strict ones. If the protocols at this weekend’s Yokohama race are any indication of what’s to come, Olympians can expect to be required to take multiple COVID tests in the 72 hours before arriving in Japan, install an app on their phone to track their movements and health status, update any symptoms daily via an app and/or phone calls, be limited or quarantined solo in their hotel rooms except for designated training times, only be allowed to train at specific times and locations, and fill out a lot of paperwork to obtain a visa.

Olympic officials have also said athletes during the Games will be tested daily, while coaches and those in close contact with athletes will be tested “regularly.” Vaccination is not expected to be required, however.

When are the Olympic triathlon events?

Local time in Japan, the men’s triathlon race will be held on July 26 at 6:30 a.m. The women’s race is the next day at 6:30 a.m. on July 27. The Mixed Team Relay will be held on July 31 at 7:30 a.m.

What time is that in the U.S.?

If you want to watch in the U.S., those times correspond to: The men’s race will be at 5:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 25. The women’s race will be at 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday, July 26. And the Mixed Team Relay will be at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday, July 30.

How long is the race?

In the Olympics the athletes race what has come to be known as the Olympic distance or standard distance–i.e., 1500m swim, 40K bike, and 10K run. That’s the same distance you likely race in your local Olympic-distance triathlons, but the major difference is that Olympic and World Triathlon races are draft-legal. (Read more about the origins of the Olympic distance for triathlon here.)

What does draft-legal mean?

Athletes go through a lap in a pace line back in the Tokyo Test Event. Photo: Ben Lumley/Triathlon.org

In non-drafting triathlon—i.e., what most age-group athletes race and what is commonly seen in Ironman events—athletes are required to stay far apart on the bike leg. Typically rules dictate that you can not be within 12 meters of the cyclist ahead of you in order to avoid getting an advantage (or draft) from them blocking the wind. This is compared with pro cycling, where riders will stick in a peloton or in large packs or pace lines in order to draft off the cyclist ahead of them and gain a benefit.

Draft-legal triathlon allows the athletes to draft on the bike, which means an athlete can ride right behind another athlete or groups of athletes can form packs and work together. This has strategy implications because it means it’s very important for athletes to get out of the swim with a group so they can work together on the bike leg and not get left behind—but they also want to keep in mind the upcoming run!

Drafting is always allowed on the swim and run.

Do they use tri bikes?

Because of those draft-legal rules, tri bikes or time trial bikes—again, commonly seen in Ironman and long-course racing—are not allowed. It can be dangerous to have lots of tri bikes close together. Instead, Olympic athletes ride road bikes (very nice and typically aerodynamic road bikes) with short, draft-legal aerobars on the front of them. Draft-legal aerobars are small extensions that can be attached to the handlebars and allow the athlete to get into a low-profile aerodynamic position—but they don’t stick out as far as typical aerobars and are closed, which is important in the event of a group crash.

You’ll often see the athletes get into their aerobars when they’re at the front of a group, trying to catch back up, or trying to break away, especially later in the mixed team relay when the athletes get more spread out.

Wait, how does mixed relay work?

The mixed team relay will be a new Olympic event in Tokyo. It will feature four-person teams from each country (two men, two women). Each person does a mini-triathlon and the order is women-man-woman-man. Each athlete races a 300m swim, an 8K bike, and a 2K run. Yes, that’s very short and very fast. They then tag off to the next person on their team.

The important thing to know is that the only athletes who are eligible to compete for their country’s relay are those who competed in the individual event. This makes it a strategy question for many national governing bodies trying to determine the best way to win medals.

How do triathletes qualify for Tokyo?

World Triathlon (formerly the ITU) has set in place a qualification system that will decide which countries receive each of the 110 spots (55 men and 55 women), but it’s up to every individual country’s governing body (in the U.S. that’s USA Triathlon) to decide which of their individual athletes get to fill those spots.

For the U.S. athletes, there are likely to be three spots for the women and two (possibly three) for the men. There are two automatic Olympic triathlon qualifying events—where a good enough performance earns you a spot on the team. For those who don’t lock down their spot at either the Tokyo Test Event back in 2019 or the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Yokohama this weekend, then they’ll be dependent on the discretion of the USAT selection committee.  Other countries can do it differently, as they see fit.

You can see the full criteria for how U.S. triathlete qualify here.

Who should I watch for in the Olympic triathlon races?

Flora Duffy wins 2019 Tokyo Olympic triathlon test event
Flora duffy won the Tokyo Test Event in 2019. Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

It’s a little hard to say this far out who will be on form in July, but in the women’s races the biggest names have to be: 2019 world champion and American Katie Zaferes, 2017 world champion Bermudan Flora Duffy (who’s come back from injury now), and the British squad of Georgia Taylor-Brown, Jess Learmonth, and 2018 world champion Vicky Holland. Both Taylor-Brown and Learmonth have excelled over the COVID year and proven themselves contenders. Don’t count out American Taylor Spivey, the Netherlands’ Rachel Klamer, or Australian’s like Ashleigh Gentle.

On the men’s side, it’s hard to bet against French world champ Vincent Luis, who has been dominant for the last two years. He, however, has a number of countrymen close on his heels—the French men’s team may be the hardest team to make in the world, right next to the U.S. and British women’s teams. (It’ll also make for a close U.S.-French rivalry in the relay.) Of course, the three-time world champion (2016, 2017, 2018) Spaniard Mario Mola will be looking to upset Luis. He may be joined by countryman and veteran Javier Gomez—although one of the most decorated short-course athletes in history, Gomez has since moved on to long-course. 70.3 world champ Gustav Iden will also look to lead a Norwegian squad, and the Brits will be led by Olympic medalist Jonny Brownlee.

What about Gwen Jorgensen?

After winning gold in Rio, Jorgensen moved from tri to running. She’ll attempt to qualify in the 10,000m on the track at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials June 18-27.

And Alistair Brownlee?

The two-time gold medalist has not yet been named to the British team—though his younger brother, Jonny, has. Despite moving on to long-course, Alistair has expressed his desire to make the Tokyo team his final Olympics. The British selection committee will now likely have a tough choice between him and up-and-comer Alex Yee.

Will the U.S. medal?

Odds are: yes—but you never know for sure. The women will likely have at least one strong favorite and two likely contenders. And the American mixed relay team should be in the mix for the podium.

Where are the Olympic triathlon events being held?

Site for the 2021 Olympic Triathlon events
The event site of the Olympic triathlon in Tokyo. Photo: Ben Lumley/Triathlon.org

All the races will be held at Odaiba Park, a small island just across the iconic Rainbow Bridge from central Tokyo. You can see a sneak peek of the course from 2019. There will be two laps on the swim, eight laps on the bike, and four on the run.

What will the conditions be like?

2019 Olympic Triathlon Test Event
The test event in 2019 was very hot. Photo: Ben Lumley/Triathlon.org

Hot. Before COVID, the main concerns about the Olympic race were that it would be hot and humid, with the Tokyo Test Event being shortened because of heat. Temperatures average in the 80s in July in Tokyo and can get up to the mid-90s, with high humidity—which is why the races are being held so early in the morning local time.

What about the Paralympics?

The PTS4 men, PTS2 women, and PTVI men and women will race on Aug. 28 at 6:30 a.m. (Friday, Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m. ET. And the PTWC men and women, PTS5 men and women will race on Aug. 29 at 6:30 a.m. local time (Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.).

Wait, what are all the para-tri categories this year?

Para-triathlon is divided up into categories based on the athletes’ physical impairment. Not every category gets contested in every Olympics. PTWC stands for wheelchair—both men and women will race in that category. PT6 is where those with visual impairments race (it used to be called PTVI), like many-time U.S. and world para-tri champ Aaron Scheidies, who will finally get a shot at racing in the Olympics. PT2 is considered a severe impairment; PT5 is mild, like defending gold medalist Grace Norman, who is a below-knee amputee. All the categories are explained here.

How do I watch the Olympic triathlon events?

In the U.S., the sole broadcaster is NBC. Nearly all of the events will be aired on one of NBC’s channels or streamed on the NBC Sports app or on Peacock. Stay tuned for where to catch the triathlon races!