Nicola Spirig, Gwen Jorgensen and Vicky Holland leading out the bike.

It’s been nearly a week since the Olympic triathlon and one reflects on what happened and what could have been done differently to secure a different outcome!

Contrary to a lot of the media coverage, the first thing that struck me about Rio was how the organisation by the locals and the friendliness of its people rescued it from the calamities of its own financial and politically difficult times. Right from the airport transfer all went like clockwork.

As to the race itself, we obviously say well done to our Champ Nicola Spirig! If someone had told me in April, recovering with 23 screws and 3 plates in her hand while nursing a fractured shoulder that by August she was going to be standing on the dais with an Olympic silver medal I could not have imagined any situation in which that was possible.

So to watch as she battled from a very dark place to first regain her health, her fitness and finally her strength with such resolve was a privilege. Being honest, I don’t believe she ever regained her full confidence from before the crash, which is why to see her come out and race with such ferocity – charging down the beach into the middle of a frenzied swim start, the relentless attacks on the bike, and not giving an inch on the run is such a testament to her ability, courage and determination.

She risked failure and tried everything in her power to beat our new Olympic Champion, Gwen Jorgensen.

I said straight after the race what a worthy champion Gwen was and I meant it. All acknowledge it was a gutsy effort from her also, showing remarkable composure under pressure. She is the ITU World Champion, the Olympic Champion and one can only say congratulations on a mighty race and last three seasons.

Olympics and The State of Triathlon

Gwen and Nicola’s outstanding performances aside, I do think we now need to take a step back and have a look at the direction the sport is heading for long and short course racing. As in both the male and female events we saw the old and the new generation of racing collide.

I’ve watched for 25 years year now as the ITU has taken the sport down a totally different road from which it was originally envisioned. Triathlon at inception was an innovative, athlete governed sport.

The implementation of drafting rules before the Olympics in 2000 was the first step in moving us away from finding the best all round swim, bike & run athlete and setting us on the course we see today – a race to the bottom where athletes are rewarded for showing the least amount of effort or initiative during the longest part of the race.

It’s boring. It’s frustrating. It’s bad for the sport.

For those thinking there’s nothing wrong, try watching a professional race (that’s not the Olympics) with a person who doesn’t follow triathlon and see how long they last. If they’re not catatonic by the end of the second lap of the bike they are doing well.

I’m often told ‘the rules are the rules’ so don’t complain or try to change them. But Triathlon isn’t the marathon. It doesn’t have 2,500 years of tradition guiding its format. The existing rules are in place on the basis of decisions made in recent memory.

In the mid-90s Australia had race formats that garnered mainstream TV coverage and crowds on their feet with multiple lead changes. What happened? Why didn’t we embrace heats and finals, different event formats, or time trials like in other sports?

For 20 years I have argued Championship triathlon races should be a true all round format:

3 heats of 30 athletes with the top 10 athletes in each heat progressing to the final.

The final to be raced as a 500m swim x 13.3km bike x 3.3km run repeated three times.

You’ll find most people, including the participants, believe it would be more dynamic, exciting and fair format for multisport athletes.

So why doesn’t it happen?

It’s nothing to do with legacy or unchangeable nature of triathlon racing (I can still remember when the decision was made to allow draft legal racing), but because the stakeholders who matter most are not the athletes and not the fans, but federation officials whose funding is tied to having athletes being ‘competitive’ at the world level.

Officials will not vote for a race format where you see the true difference between an athlete like Gwen or Nicola and two thirds of the main pack. So instead we revert to a situation where everyone takes a free ride on the bike, loses by 2 minutes on the run and we all pretend it’s a close race. It’s not. Raced as a time trial the field would be spread 10 minutes.

This obvious truth is stunting the sport from growing to its full potential and viewership.

What about the Brownlees? They still win.

Brownlee_VargaRichard Varga (Slovakia), Ali Brownlee, Gordon Benson, Jonathan Brownlee (Team GB).

No-one is a bigger admirer of the Brownlee’s style of racing than myself. Just as they dominated at London and Rio they would flourish in the format I’m suggesting. But at present they are excelling in spite of the current set up, not because of it. I’d also add their situation is unique – they are a race team in themselves, who when added with a powerhouse swim/biker and quasi-adopted brother Varga are working for each other at every Championship. Similar situation with the success of Nicola, who has given the Olympics two of the most exciting races in triathlon history. The irony is these athletes are actually working against their own legacy for a fairer bike by competing so well at present.

Because unless something changes soon, the out-the-front style of racing is on the endangered species list. The shorter the races become and the easier the course in Tokyo, the more opportunities there will be to recruit from the elite running ranks.

Until then however, well done to all the participants and for our medalists in inspiring us to see the best of triathlon racing. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

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