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Who Will Get Three Men’s Olympic Spots: The U.S. or Britain?

The points race is on.

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With under nine weeks to go until the Olympics, there are dozens of athletes still wondering if they—or their country—will be racing in Tokyo. Certainly, one of the biggest decisions still to come is who will get the last U.S. women’s spot? But only slightly less exciting is the question of if the U.S. or Great Britain will qualify three men (in addition to each’s three women)—and who will get that third spot if they do?

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As of today, Team USA is the only country to qualify three men and three women to Tokyo—if the qualification period ended today. But, of course, the period does not end today. It doesn’t end until June 14, and there’s a lot of racing left between now and then. And we’ll have a much clearer picture after the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Leeds on June 5-6. That should also be when we finally see two-time gold medalist Alistair Brownlee make his appearance, on his home turf.

Both the U.S. and Great Britain have four women currently ranked in the top ten in the Olympic qualification rankings. In fact, each have an additional two women also ranked between 11 and 30—meaning some very, very good American and British women will not be racing in Tokyo. 

Now, while both countries are triathlon powerhouses, when it comes to the men the numbers aren’t quite as deep.

For the U.S., Morgan Pearson (ranked #16), Matt McElroy (#19), and Eli Hemming (#28) are all within the top 30 currently—which, as of today, would give America three spots for the men’s race in Tokyo. To be clear, Morgan Pearson is the only one of the three who has qualified himself for one of those spots. While the U.S. men’s performance in the overall rankings determines how many U.S. spots there are at the Olympics, it doesn’t dictate who will get those spots. That’s up to each country to decide. Per the U.S. criteria, Morgan is the only one who has auto-qualified. The final two (or one) spots will be chosen by the USA Triathlon Selection Committee. The next highly ranked American is Kevin McDowell at #36, who had a strong race in Yokohama and placed 11th there. Eli Hemming has unfortunately suffered problems in the most recent World Triathlon events—a mechanical in Yokohama and a time penalty for goggles outside his transition box in Lisbon. Eli is not on the start list for the upcoming World Cup in Italy, but Kevin McDowell is and could potentially move up in the numbers.

When we talk about the British men it used to be that they far outranked the U.S. men—but no longer. Today, there are only two British men in the top 30 in the Olympic rankings: Jonny Brownlee at #13 and Alex Yee at #21, who placed fourth at Yokohama. Tom Bishop is next at #35 and has said he was committed to racing all over the world to earn a third British spot in Tokyo. So far, he’s held that up—going from Yokohama to Lisbon (where he DNF’d) and will now be racing this weekend in Italy. Both Brownlees are on the list for that race as well—and if there were a concerted effort to help Tom Bishop, so as to get him closer to a top 30 ranking and thus a third male spot (which might potentially then be allocated to Alistair and not to Tom), it could make for a very dynamic and interesting race. Of course, then, the biggest race and biggest chance for points and for things to change would be in Leeds the following weekend.

From Leeds, there is one last points race in Huatulco, Mexico and, again, Tom Bishop is on the start list. Whether he can actually race back-to-back-to-back high-level World Triathlon races is an open question, and whether the Brownlees would actually work as domestiques for anyone is an even bigger question. Add in the fact that the U.S. men are also on those start lines and fighting for their spots—plus there are other strong names fighting to get into the top 30 (which will push others out)—and it all becomes a big question mark. 

I love the excitement of these races within the race, but it is also unbelievable—and so troubling for both them and their ultimate performances—that many of these athletes won’t know if they’ll be Olympians until just four or five weeks out from the Games. And then they’ll have to turn around for the race (and the logistics) of their lives. Can you imagine?

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 and will continue to watch all of these races and keep us up-to-speed on who we’ll see in Tokyo.