With the Olympic triathlon event less than a year away, short-course draft-legal athletes are deep in the midst of qualifying for next year’s big race—the men will compete on July 27, the women will compete on July 28, and the first-ever mixed relay competition will take place on Aug. 1.
Athletes started the process of “earning” the 110 (55 men and 55 women) Olympic triathlon spots back in May of 2018. The system put in place by the International Triathlon Union that decides how these spots are handed out is based on individual ranking, but that ultimately means very little to the individual athletes as each country’s NOC (National Olympic Committee) gets full discretion in how they want to hand out the spots that are earned.
All of that to say that this week’s Tokyo Olympic Test Event is very important toward deciding who will and won’t be on the starting line of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For some countries (like the United States), there is a direct chance at qualification if an athlete performs well enough. For other countries (like Great Britain), the NOC has decided to retain full discretionary control of the slot allocation. But even in that case, a strong performance at the test event is key toward proving that an athlete can compete well on the same course, under similar pressure, and possibly in similar conditions to actual Olympics.
The Tokyo Olympic Test Event offers no points toward the World Triathlon Series and no prize money. The athletes show up with the hope of proving their worth on the Olympic course. With so much (and simultaneously so little) on the line, Thursday’s women’s event came together in an unusually strange fashion.
The day kicked off with an announcement two hours before the start of the race that officials had decided to shorten the run course from 10K to 5K due to the “Heat Stress Indicator” showing that athletes would likely be competing in “Extreme Level” conditions by the time the run would conclude.
“There was full consensus on all parties for the decision of the ITU Medical Delegate and ITU Technical Delegates to shorten the run distance to 5km, considering the athletes’ health,” the official statement from ITU reads.
The reaction from around the triathlon community was understandably mixed. Heat has played a huge role in the decision to alter triathlons around the world (Ironman France was shortened and the New York City Triathlon was canceled all-together, as examples), but those decisions were made largely for the safety of age-group athletes, while these are elite athletes who are preparing for the biggest race of their lives—in the exact same place and in similar conditions—in just one year.
The decision to shorten the run can have huge tactical consequences in an “Olympic-distance” triathlon. Think back to how many times Gwen Jorgensen laid down the hammer on the final 5K, needing the first 5K to work her way up to the front. Was it the right decision? Athletes did appear to be suffering on course and French athlete Cassandre Beaugrand was reportedly taken to the hospital with signs of heat stroke. It was a safety decision that was likely the right one, but the real question that comes out of this is: What happens if conditions are similar on race day in the Olympics? Will the same decision be made? We’ve reached out to the ITU and will report back.
The race had its signature draft-legal drama as the number one-ranked athlete, American Katie Zaferes (who was strongly expected to qualify for the Olympics at this event), crashed on the bike and eventually dropped out. British training partners Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor Brown competed together all day (which is allowed in draft-legal triathlon) and were stride for stride as they pulled away from Bermuda’s Flora Duffy on the run course. After being together for so much of the race, Learmonth and Taylor Brown crossed the line hand-in-hand with huge smiles on their faces—an act that turned out to have huge consequences.
Pretty quickly after the race both athletes were listed officially as “DSQ” on the official results, with Duffy showing in the top spot. ITU later confirmed that both athletes had been disqualified for a violation of rule 2.11.f: “Athletes who finish in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made, will be DSQ.”
So while the rule is strange, and the outcome in this case ultimately is not a great look for our sport—it was the right call. It is the athletes’ responsibility to know the competition rules and it’s hard to argue that these two athletes didn’t violate that rule.
Ultimately it works out nicely for both British athletes that the British Triathlon Federation has chosen to let a selection committee decide which athletes will make the start at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While Learmonth and Taylor Brown technically didn’t fall anywhere on the leaderboard of this event, they dominated against a stacked field on the modified Olympic test event course. The official reaction from British Triathlon was fairly positive in favor of the athletes.
“I think we can take a lot of positives out of the performance of our athletes today,” Mike Cavendish, British Triathlon National Performance Director said in a statement. “They all coped with the conditions well and I think each one raced to the best of their ability and I want to thank the support staff for their hard work in ensuring the athletes were as prepared as possible.”
“It’s obviously disappointing to have Jess and Georgia disqualified but it’s a testament to the depth of our female squad that we still have another athlete on the podium,” he continued, referencing Vicky Holland’s third-place finish. “What the athletes delivered today has told us a lot ahead of next year and to have five athletes in the top 11 is great.”
After crossing the finish line in third, Duffy was awarded with the win. Either result is a huge statement from the two-time ITU world champion, who hadn’t competed in over a year due to a foot injury.
“What a day!” Duffy wrote on Instagram. “Firstly congrats to @georgiatb & @jllearmonth, awesome racing by both – hands down best today. An unfortunate and strange twist post race. I was thrilled with third and thrilled to be back racing after one of the hardest years of my professional career. There were many times in the last 14 months that I did not think I would race again. So today was a huge personal milestone in my journey back. I still have a long way to go. The Olympic course is excellent. I’m excited to return with more form next year.”
Alice Betto (ITA) was moved into second place and Holland third, with Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes hanging on for fourth place. USA’s Summer Rappaport and Germany’s Laura Lindemann finished fifth and sixth, respectively, and each earned Olympic spots.
Thankfully the ruling didn’t affect the U.S. qualification situation—Rappapart would have been the only U.S. qualifier in either scenario.
The elite men’s race is set for Friday at 7:30 a.m. local time (Thursday, Aug. 15 at 3:30 p.m. PT/6:30 p.m. ET).