Triathlon’s sixth appearance in the Olympic Games promises to be the most unpredictable yet. There are at least 10 legitimate medal contenders in the individual races, and the addition of the mixed relay makes this the most significant Olympics for triathlon since its debut in 2000.
If you’re new to draft-legal racing, let’s start with a quick primer. The major difference is that drafting is allowed on the bike, because there would be no way to have a non-drafting race on a short, looped circuit with 65 athletes who are all within 1% of each other physiologically. That makes for pack racing, and the goal for the athletes trying to medal is to make it to T2 in the front pack—whether it’s a pack of four or 40.
What makes the outcome of these races so uncertain is that we don’t know which race strategy or dynamics will win out. Will a small breakaway of women get a few minutes on the field and battle out the medals among themselves? Will the lead group of men out of the water stay away on the bike or get swept up by the chasers?
We have no idea. What we do know is that, unlike 2016, there’s no clear-cut favorite in the individual races. (That said, the French are certainly a slight favorite to win the relay given how dominant they’ve been in that event.) Each athlete needs to play to his or her strengths, and that means there’ll be aggressive surges during the swim, bike, and run. Here are a few scenarios we could see.
The swim in Tokyo Bay could be a bit rough, which may string things out from the start. Some of the strongest swimmers in the field are also among the best cyclists, and that means there’s a good chance of a breakaway right out of T1.
Taylor Knibb (USA), Flora Duffy (BER), Jessica Learmonth (GBR), and Maya Kingma (NED) have proven themselves to be the four strongest cyclists in the field. A breakaway of those four could put as much as two minutes into a large chase. Duffy is by far the fastest runner of that group, but she’s also the slowest swimmer, so it’s very possible she’ll miss the bullet train or have to play some hard-earned catch-up.
American Summer Rappaport should also be among the first to T1, but don’t expect her to be able to jump on the Knibb-Learmonth-Kingma express. The more likely scenario is that she’s at the pointy end of the chase group that spends the entirety of the bike trying to close the gap. That’s where Duffy can really help, depending on which pack she makes, and if she sticks around or takes off.
The big unknown for the American women is what version of Katie Zaferes we’ll see in Tokyo. If she’s back to 2019 form—when she won five WTCS races—then she should also make the breakaway. If she’s there and Duffy is not, Zaferes could be the fastest runner in the break, and she’ll do everything in her power to help keep the group away before the start of the run.
Perhaps the biggest wildcard is the Frenchwoman Cassandre Beaugrande. Beaugrande’s swim is hit-or-miss, so it’s more likely she’ll miss the lead group, which would leave her with some work to do to get into medal contention.
There’s also always the chance that the bike accordions together, and we’re left with a large group of 20-plus women to start the run. If that’s the case, Duffy, Beaugrande, and Georgia Taylor-Brown (GBR) could be the trio fighting out the podium, but don’t rule out Rappaport. She finished second to teammate Knibb who broke away in Yokohama, but if she can limit her losses on two wheels, she might be Team USA’s best shot for a medal in the individual race.
While the women’s race will probably be all about the bike, it’s more likely that the men’s competition will come down to the run. Don’t expect a small group to get away. There are about 20 men capable of swimming close to 18 minutes (depending on conditions) and there might be another group of 20 not too far behind.
Positioning within a large group on the bike will be crucial heading into T2. Athletes vying for a medal want to be among the top 10 making transition, and that could make for some intense (and dangerous) riding on the final lap of the bike.
If Britain’s Alex Yee starts the run among the leaders, he’ll be very hard to beat. The 23-year-old might be the class runner of the field, but he’s not the only professional runner in the mix. The other is American Morgan Pearson—and the two could go head-to-head in the individual race and again as anchors on the relay four days later. They’ll both be very tough to keep off the podium if they exit T2 near the front.
While they head to Tokyo with the best running credentials, Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt and Frenchman Vincent Luis are still the most proven triathletes, and they’re two of only a few who could shake things up on the bike. The other is Belgian Marten Van Riel, who’ll be happy to try a solo breakaway or three on the bike.
The men’s wildcard is New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde, but he might be better suited over the sprint distance—for now. There’s a very real scenario in which Yee, Pearson, and Wilde break away right out of T2, and no one else is in medal contention for the next 29-ish minutes.
With two-time reigning gold medalist Alistair Brownlee out of the mix, the two returning Olympic medalists are his younger brother, Jonathan Brownlee (silver in 2016) and South African Henri Schoeman (bronze). It’s unlikely that the younger Brownlee will be able to run his way to a third Olympic medal, but Schoeman might have a shot at his second.
All that’s left to do now is sit back and watch how it all plays out.