Breakdancing isn’t the only recent medal event added to the Olympic roster. In 2021, we’ll see the debut of the Triathlon Mixed Relay, an event that pits teams of two men and two women against each other on a super sprint course. But the fast and super-spectator friendly format isn’t all that new–it was actually first hatched by the International Triathlon Union (ITU) in 2009. Here’s a look back at the impetus of the triathlon mixed relay–and why it just may be one of the hottest tickets in Tokyo.
2009 was a banner year at the Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines, Iowa. An event with a giant prize purse known to attract the world’s best athletes, that year was no exception with several Olympians and world champs in town. First, the men’s pro race saw one of the closest finishes in the history of the sport, with 2000 Olympic gold medalist Simon Whifield of Canada outleaning Australia’s Brad Kahlefeldt, Germany’s Jan Frodeno, and New Zealands Kris Gemmell after a four-way sprint to the line. The women’s race provided a less drama at the finish but just as much flare, with Australia’s two Emmas (Moffat and Snowsill) taking one-two over a deep field.
But what really got the crowd buzzing was the brand-new triathlon mixed relay, held the day after the individual pro race. Hatched by the ITU to get another triathlon event on the Olympic Program–and, therefore medal opportunities–the relay that day featured mixed teams of two men and two women, each athlete completing in an all-out sprint of a 250-meter swim, 6.6-kilometer bike, and a 1.6-kilometer run (the distance has since changed slightly since), before tagging off to the next teammate. All relays had to go in the order of woman-man-woman-man, and the first team across the finish line would win the race.
Right there on that warm June day in downtown Des Moines, spectators would be treated to a mini Olympics, with 17 teams representing ten countries, including Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Russia, New Zealand and the United States, competing. It was a veritable who’s-who of the multsport, with names like Daniela Ryf, Snowsill, Whitfield, Jarrod Shoemaker, Sarah Haskins, Paula Findlay–Olympians or world champs, all–competing for their respective country.
It was Ryf, now a four-time Ironman world champion, who emerged as one of the stars of the day. Then a 22-year-old ITU star, Ryf posted the fastest women’s bike split by nearly 30 seconds in her leg, a performance that catapulted her into first place into the final exchange zone. She created just enough cushion for her Swiss teammate Lukas Salvisberg to keep the lead over Australia by nine seconds at the finish. Team Canada rounded out the podium, with the U.S. taking fourth.
At the finish line, Ryf chatted about the exciting, short-course format and expressed optimism about the event’s future. “Hopefully the ITU will be able to get this into London 2012,” she said at the time. “It was planned so well and awesome for the spectators to watch.”
It would actually take another eight years after the Hy-Vee race for Ryf’s hope to be fulfilled with the event to be added to the Olympic games. It was a move touted by ITU President Marisol Casado as an important step towards team building and gender equity. “This is an event that demonstrates that women and men can compete together but both are equally important to the success of the team,” she said.
At the 2019 World Champs in Hamburg, just four seconds separated Team France from Team Germany for the win, making for a super thrilling finish. Add the extra incentive of Olympic gold to the already dramatic event, and it’s sure to make it event one of the hottest tickets in Tokyo next summer.