The best short course triathletes in the world will race for Olympic hardware on Aug. 18 and 20 at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is the fourth time triathlon has been included in the Games since its debut in Sydney in 2000, which helped legitimize the sport and lead to massive growth in age-group participation around the world.
A Sport Evolves
The formation of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) in 1989 was a major and necessary step toward triathlon’s inclusion in the Olympics. While the Ironman distance started to tickle the fringes of mainstream athletic culture in the mid-90s, the race was too long to turn into an Olympic event. In order to make the race more exciting for spectators, the ITU introduced the draft-legal format for the 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run event. Drafting on the bike completely changed the dynamics of the sport, placing more emphasis on the swim and run while also introducing team tactics to a sport previously viewed as a mostly solo endeavor.
There has been considerable controversy surrounding the water quality of Rio’s iconic shoreline, including the triathlon swim venue of Copacabana Beach, but Olympics officials maintain the venues used for all water sports will be safe enough for competition. Additional concern about the spread of the Zika virus has caused some health experts to call for the Games to be moved or postponed. American Sarah True, who finished fourth at the Olympics in 2012 in London, said she plans to arrive in Rio just before her race to minimize any health risks.
Fifty-five men and 55 women will compete. The U.S. is one of only four nations that earned a full team of three men and three women (the others are Australia, Great Britain and Spain) by collectively gathering the most ITU points. The athletes will tackle a difficult course that should make for a thrilling race. After the one loop swim, the racers will set out for eight laps around a technical bike course. Some steep hills early in the loop could help establish a breakaway if a strong group of swimmers exits the water together and an alliance is formed. Some countries may select domestiques for their squad to help chase any attacks and protect the team leader. Much like the domestiques of professional cycling pelotons, he or she will ride toward the front of the pack to shield the team leader from the wind, essentially sacrificing his or her own glory for the benefit of the team leader, who will likely be the best runner. The pace during the bike leg is often frenetic with huge fluctuations in speed as racers accelerate out of corners. The likelihood of a breakaway succeeding is high given the topography of the bike course, which should set up a heated showdown on the four loop run course, where the stronger runners may have some work to do to catch the leaders.
One name tops the list: Gwen Jorgensen. The American has dominated the ITU circuit over the last two years, winning an astonishing 12 WTS races in a row while going undefeated for the entire 2015 season. Jorgensen showed that she is not 100 percent invincible with a second-place finish at the WTS Gold Coast race in April, where a group of three women escaped the main field on the bike to establish an insurmountable 90-second lead heading into T2. Despite Jorgensen’s best efforts, she couldn’t run down eventual winner Helen Jenkins, who will join Non Stanford and Vicky Holland on the formidable Great Britain team in Rio. Jenkins’ Gold Coast win may serve as a blueprint for success to beat Jorgensen in Rio because the hilly bike course could split up the field. Australia’s Emma Moffatt (bronze, 2008) and Erin Densham (bronze, 2012), Sweden’s Lisa Norden (silver, 2012) and Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig (gold, 2012) will all look to add to their Olympic medal collections. Top-ranked ITU stars Andrea Hewitt (New Zealand), Flora Duffy (Bermuda) and London’s fourth-place finisher Sarah True (USA) have also proved they are serious podium threats.
The men’s race will feature a dual of nations with Spain and Great Britain boasting the strongest medal chances. In 2012, Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee became the first brothers to reach an Olympic podium in an individual sport since 1908, with Alistair winning gold and Jonathan claiming bronze. The brothers Brownlee are a force to be reckoned with but will face stiff competition from Spain’s Mario Mola (current ITU points leader) and Fernando Alarza (current world No. 2). 2012 London Olympic silver medalist Javier Gomez would have made for a stellar Spanish trio, but unfortunately Gomez was forced to withdraw after he suffered an arm fracture in a bike crash last month. While Alistair Brownlee is regarded as one of the best runners the sport has ever seen (he recorded the fastest 10K ever in an Olympic triathlon, 29:07), Mola has had the most successful 2016 season, winning four out of five races over a three month stretch between March and June. South African Richard Murray has the leg speed to interrupt the Spain vs. Great Britain showdown, having finished third at the Rio test event.
Men’s race: Aug. 18 at 11 a.m. local time (10 a.m. ET, on USA Network in the U.S.)
Women’s race: Aug. 20 at 11 a.m. local time (10 a.m. ET, on NBC in the U.S.)
Simon Whitfield of Canada and Bevan Docherty of New Zealand are the only people to win multiple medals (gold and silver and silver and bronze, respectively).
Australia has the most medals of any country with five, all earned by women.
Switzerland is second in the medal count with four and has won the most gold with two.
Susan Williams earned the only triathlon medal for the USA in 2004 (bronze).