My fellow triathletes, we have new Olympic champions!
Do yourself a favor and watch the men’s and women’s individual races, if you haven’t yet. (Or if you don’t have access to Olympic streams and replays, check out these recaps: Men’s race | Women’s race)
To be honest, after the year’s delay of the Games due to COVID-19 I had my doubts about whether they would be held at all, or if we would have to wait until Paris 2024 for new champions to be crowned. That would have meant limbo for older athletes, who would age one Olympic cycle and miss their athletic prime.
From last year’s truncated racing season, we already saw younger athletes begin stepping up and into the limelight. While they didn’t quite yet retire reigning favourites like Alistair Brownlee or Vincent Luis, it was a warning sign that for them winning it was now or never.
Speaking of which, Brownlee is the longest-reigning Olympic champion: nine years! That’s just two years shy of how long I’ve been in this sport; the great man along with contemporaries like his brother Jonathan and rival Javier Gomez have always figured in my conversations with fellow triathlon fans about who’s going to win a gold medal and who’s going to be world champion.
I got quite sentimental reading these three write about formally leaving short-course racing after Tokyo. A new era in Olympic triathlon has come.
Tokyo 2020 Men’s Individual Triathlon
Held in conditions just slightly cooler than the 2019 test event thanks to an earlier start time, the race unfolded the way Macca analysed it would.
(You’d think the false start -- the first in Olympic history -- would have rattled some of these competitors, but in the end the entire men’s podium were positioned on the left, among the athletes who had to be called back after jumping in.)
The entire field came together on the bike with Kristian Blummenfelt and the Norwegian squad driving the charge to bridge up, which allowed the race to turn into a run shootout.
Just like he did in Yokohama and Lisbon, Blummenfelt got into the front group straight away but let other athletes lead out the pacing until halfway through the run. Then he attacked, and attacked again until only Alex Yee and Hayden Wilde could stay with him. He put on a surge with one kilometer to go. People asked: did he go too early? But he did what he had to do to avoid a sprint finish, to make sure he got the win. He collapsed across the finish line and had to be taken away in a wheelchair -- but job done.
Last year on the MX Endurance podcast, Blummenfelt said he was going to win both the Olympics and the Ironman World Championship in the same year. Many laughed at him for making such a bold statement. But here we are, and now he’s got 1 out of 2.
Yee and Wilde weren’t even on the Olympic radar in 2019 and 2020, but the extra year allowed them to mature and really come into their own. Yee in particular with that resounding win in Leeds announced: “Here is Great Britain’s next generation of champions.” I can't wait to see more of these two on the top steps of a World Triathlon podium.
Tokyo 2020 Women’s Individual Triathlon
We have short memories. And when there’s been a year of limited racing, we forget the caliber of an athlete especially when they start doing badly.
That was the case for Katie Zaferes, who dominated racing in 2018 and 2019 and seemed on track for Olympic gold. Then the majority of the World Triathlon series was cancelled in 2020. When she came back to racing in Hamburg, she was like a different person: poor positioning in the swim, average performances on the bike, never in contention on the run. I have to admit I did not expect her to pull herself together and perform as she did. Ultimately she proved USA selectors right with swimming in the front pack, taking turns and keeping the pace up on the bike, and holding on for the bronze medal finish.
Flora Duffy was the obvious favourite for the gold, but knowing that she would win didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of how she did it. Commentators said she worked specifically on her swim so she could put herself in the front swim group she had missed in Leeds. And then Macca was right again: Duffy out front on the bike would set up anyone else in her group for good chances at a podium. On the run, she was peerless and relegated everyone else to battling for second and third.
Many considered Georgia Taylor-Brown winning the 2020 world championship over the sprint distance in Hamburg as sheer luck, but I’m so happy she showed she absolutely can race and be one of the best in the world over Olympic distance. Riding on a punctured tire through the last lap on the bike, she gave up a bit of ground hitting T2. But she masterfully kept composure and ran herself into silver.
It’s been such a great two days of racing and I was almost sad it was over until I reminded myself there’s still the mixed relay on Saturday.
While the French go in as world champions, expect the US, Great Britain, and Australian teams to put up plenty of resistance. I’m also excited to see the Swiss team with Nicola Spirig on it. Unfortunately, South Africa will not be able to start because Henri Schoeman sustained a stress fracture during the men’s individual race, which was a disappointment especially for Richard Murray who skipped the individual race in favor of doing the relay.
Don’t miss the Olympic debut of this format. Whatever happens, triathlon will be making history.