Triathlon’s Olympic Selection Process Gets Ready to Start Again

Timing and strategy will be key to manage stress and COVID regulations.

Photo: Tommy Zaferes/ITU

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We now know that should the Olympics occur this year (which seems increasingly likely in some form), there will be no “fans,” per se, from countries outside Japan. It also appears there will be very limited support staff or official dignitaries allowed. Typically, for example, the U.S. has close to 200 governmental and invited guests at an Olympics and word is this year that number may be limited to 11. Depending on the country and sport, each sport’s national federation will also send limited staff—ie. USA Triathlon won’t send the usual number of people. Finally, each sport’s international federation is also typically present in a big way. I, for example, was able to attend Rio for over a week as part of the international federation’s delegation (with a plus one!), with everything but airfare pretty much covered. All of this will be changed for sure.

Most certainly, our Olympians will be disappointed to not perform on the greatest day of their competitive lives in front of family and friends, but the thrill, importance and amazingness of being an Olympian will still ring true, and will stay with them forever. Hopefully, each sport, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and all of us will be incredibly creative in our support from afar. And I know we’ll be watching as the road to Tokyo gets underway again in the next few months.

The U.S. qualification process

World Triathlon announced last week that Olympic qualification points will be opened again on May 1, with the qualification period ending on June 21. This means that athletes can earn points again towards meeting the World Triathlon Olympic standards. The points period was frozen last year at the start of the COVID pandemic. 

In addition to meeting World Triathlon standards, athletes must also consider their individual countries’ process for team selection. For U.S. athletes (and for many countries), the key race to qualify automatically for Tokyo will be May 15 in Yokohama, Japan. That will be the next and last chance to lock in a spot on the U.S. team. Pre-pandemic Summer Rappaport was the only American to secure her qualification with her fifth place finish at the first designated qualification event, the Tokyo Test Event in August 2019.

Two years ago, USA Triathlon established a fair process to determine our Olympic representatives. With COVID canceling many of the designated races, the process has since been adjusted to accommodate the schedule and the ability of athletes to have access to train and race.

The second and last remaining automatic qualifying event will now be in Yokohama. A second woman could automatically qualify at that race by reaching the podium (top 3). Only two athletes total can automatically qualified, leaving USAT’s “Games Athlete Discretionary Committee” with the freedom of at least one discretionary pick. Should no woman hit the podium, the committee will have two discretionary determinations. At this point, it appears 99% certain the U.S. will have three spots for women to compete in Tokyo.

The men’s process in Yokohama is a bit different. If two men hit the podium, both will automatically qualify for the Olympics. If one podiums, he is in. And if no male podiums, then the top USA male in the top eight would qualify. Remaining spots for the team, like the women, would be discretionary. The critical point is for the U.S. is that they could earn either two or three spots for the men on the Olympic start line. The U.S. must have three men ranked in the top 30 in the world—via those Olympic qualifying points—to earn three spots. As of today, the U.S. is the only country in the world with three spots for both women and men, but with racing about to resume and the top three American men still fighting to be in the top 30 that could change between May 1 and June 21.

The next seven weeks

With six key events on three continents scheduled during this new qualifying period, it is going to be very interesting to see how athletes and their national federations maneuver toward maximum points and Olympic spots. Successive racing options, extensive travel, and possible quarantine and “bubble” situations will be challenging all athletes way beyond the usual grind of swim-bike-run training. 

For example, we hear that the June 6 World Triathlon Series event in Leeds will restrict athletes to their designated hotels upon arrival, with no outdoor training allowed. If this were to be copied at other events, and athletes do more than one or two events, you could have a situation where athletes are essentially racing and traveling with very little time to actually train outside their hotel rooms! All of this in their hopeful build-up to an Olympics less than two months later.

One can only imagine the imposed stress this is creating for all athletes hoping to swim, bike, and run in Tokyo in July. With discretionary selections on the horizon for nearly every country, the limited automatic opportunities in Yokohama, and the COVID-related constraints in different locations, logistics and strategy for athletes will almost be as critical as training in May and June.

Barry Siff was President of USA Triathlon and sat on the World Triathlon Executive Board for 5+ years. He remains very engaged in the sport in numerous ways, living in Tempe, AZ with his wife, Jodee, and two dogs, Xander and Tally.

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