The first ever Olympic triathlon mixed relay has the potential to be one of the most exciting races of the Tokyo Games. While France has dominated the unique event at the world championship level for the past three years, the British have swiftly become the favorites after their stellar performances in the individual men’s and women’s races.
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It’s a British team that now has four Olympic medals between the four of them, thanks to Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Yee winning silver in the individual races. They’ll be joined by Jessica Learmonth, who’s currently ranked number five in the world and is one of the best swim-bikers in the sport, and Jonny Brownlee, who is looking for his third Olympic medal and first gold.
On paper this super-team should win, and the betting markets currently have them as a significant favorite. But both the U.S. and France should be able to stay in contention, and there’s always the chance that things bunch up—or there’s a wreck—in which case Australia, Belgium, and New Zealand will all be ready to pounce.
Before we get into how each of these countries might try to become the sport’s first Olympic mixed relay medalists, a quick review of the event itself:
Eighteen nations qualified to take part in the relay—but South Africa has withdrawn due to an injury to Henri Schoeman. The order is female-male-female-male, and each of the four athletes completes a 300m swim, a draft-legal 6.8K bike, and 2K run—before tagging the next athletes.
The event was the brainchild of the organizers of the Tiszaujvaros World Cup in Hungary, which is one of the longest-running World Triathlon events on earth. They held the first triathlon relay back in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the first official world championship was held, in conjunction with the Hy-Vee World Cup in Des Moines. Switzerland won the first two world titles, and since then France has claimed four, Britain three, and Australia, the U.S., and Germany each have one.
So what happens tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.? Here’s how each of the favorites could win.
Great Britain’s Mixed Relay Team
The order of athletes doesn’t have to be set until just before the race, and teams can also sub in their alternate (if they have one) right up until the race start. But let’s assume that the Brits opt for Learmonth>Brownlee>Taylor-Brown>Yee. It’s nearly impossible then to see them being dropped on any of the first three legs. Learmonth will likely be the one driving an early breakaway, and it’s very possible that a number of countries will be off the back before the first run leg even begins.
From there, the mission is simple: dispose of as many of their rivals as possible on each leg, so that, ideally, newly-minted silver medalist Yee can solo his way to his second medal of these Games. Taylor-Brown will be the key leg. If she can ensure that the Americans and French aren’t at her side when she tags off to Yee, it’s game over. With Norway and Bermuda not qualifying enough athletes, the next best athletes from the individual race are both on this team. And that makes for a pretty formidable back half of the relay.
USA‘s Mixed Relay Team
USA Triathlon has announced that Katie Zaferes and Summer Rappaport will be the provisional starters for the women, and Taylor Knibb will be the reserve. That could certainly change at any point—in fact it can change right up to official start lists released two hours beforehand—but for now it means the big decision is which woman to lead off with. We’ll assume that Kevin McDowell will go second and Morgan Pearson will anchor, even though McDowell had the much better individual race (6th vs. 42nd). If there’s a sprint for gold on the final run, it’s hard to chose against Pearson’s proven kick.
If they lead off with Rappaport, they’ll have someone who could swim with Learmonth, and potentially gain a few seconds on her on the run if she’s having a good day. The issue becomes the bike, where Learmonth would certainly look to attack her and could very possibly gain some time. If the U.S. loses contact that early, it could be devastating. Trying to catch Brownlee or Taylor-Brown isn’t exactly easy.
If they leadoff with Zaferes, it seems likely that the Americans and Brits will start the second leg in very close proximity. Given her current form, it’s certainly possible that Zaferes could put a few seconds into Learmonth over the run, which would give McDowell a nice cushion on Brownlee. Both are two of the best men in the world at the 19-ish-minute relay effort, and they match up well against each other. It’s the one leg that there’s least likely to be much separation between the Brits and Americans.
However, if they lead off with Zaferes, Rappaport could be in trouble against “GTB” on the bike and run legs. That sets up a nightmare scenario where Taylor-Brown tags off to Yee and the U.S. is nowhere to be seen.
If the U.S. is indeed at the front after the final tag-off—whether that’s alone, or alongside Britain, France, or another team—Pearson will have a great chance to go for gold. He was 25 seconds faster than Yee on the anchor leg at last year’s mixed relay world champs in Hamburg, and most of that was on the run. The U.S. finished second behind France there, with Britain taking third.
The big question will be whether the French are in the mix late in the race, in which case Pearson (and Yee) could be in trouble on the bike.
France‘s Mixed Relay Team
The three-time reigning world champs entered 2021 as big favorites to win this event, and they clearly have the nuances of the race figured out better than anyone else. They won last year’s world title even without reigning world champ Vincent Luis; instead anchoring with Dorian Coninx, who will likely handle the second leg in Tokyo.
Coninx and Luis will be joined by Leonie Periault and Cassandre Beaugrande. Periault had a breakthrough fifth-place performance in the individual race last weekend, while Beaugrande had a disappointing DNF. It’s likely they’ll lead off with Periault to avoid getting dropped on the opening swim, as Beaugrande’s swim could be a liability.
The French mission is simple: Hold steady with the leaders for the first three legs, and give Luis a chance against Pearson, Yee and whichever other contenders might still be there. If the French make the final tag-off with the leaders, look for Luis to try to bury the competition on the final bike leg. While his running hasn’t been up to snuff lately, he’s got a big kick and will be almost impossible to catch if he gets away.
The best of the rest
Australia, Belgium, and New Zealand will all have a great shot at a medal—even perhaps gold, should any or all of the favorites slip up. Each has a similar problem in that they’re strong on the male legs but not so much on the female ones. Nonetheless, if any or all of them manage to hang on to the Britain-USA-France train at the front, they’ll each have a great shot on the final leg. With Jacob Birthwhilste (AUS), Hayden Wilde (NZL) and Jelle Geens (BEL)—who is back after a positive COVID test ketp him out of the individual race—likely handling the anchor leg, any of them could be serious contenders. Wilde is coming off a bronze-medal showing last weekend and is particularly punchy in the relay.