Future of Olympic Triathlon

AJ Bell London Triathlon 2015
AJ Bell London Triathlon 2015

The great thing about the Olympic Triathlon for the English-speaking countries is that we seem to win medals.

As an Olympic event, the chance of a medal and the opportunity of getting to watch it for free are high. Well, at least that’s true if you are in the country at the time. Which I was for London 2012.

The Viewing Public

Triathlon at London 2012 in Hyde Park was watched by huge crowds. A great advert for the sport.

Some people at my tri club watch both KONA and the ITU World Triathlon Series on television. I even have the odd relation who watches the odd triathlon. However my experience is that routine watching of triathlon is limited to a relatively small number of people. Most events generally only have family and friends watching on the course although there are exceptions like IMUK where many of the locals turn out.

Thus I would say that triathlon’s inclusion in the Olympic (and Commonwealth) Games is mostly warranted by the generally good and rising levels of global participation. Furthermore, a triathlon event doesn’t require a purpose-built stadium of any degree of permenance; so triathlon also fits into the schedules fairly easily and cheaply.

With that in mind, can we hope to see more triathlon/multi-sport events in the olympics in future years?

I wouldn’t get your hopes up, triathlon could be withdrawn from the Games as easily as a Mixed/Team triathlon could be added.

What’s holding back the popularity of tri as a spectator sport?

Let’s consider a few negatives.

  1. Olympic distance triathlon tends to ‘go on a bit’. Admittedly quite a bit less time is required for an elite race than when either you or I try to do one; but it’s quite hard to grab the TV-viewing public’s undivided attention for the entire race duration.
  2. Finishes are occasionally close (2012, women’s) but usually it’s a procession and a walk over the line.
  3. There is no meaningful time to beat. Everyone wants to run faster than the fastest ever 100m runner, Gatlin (Google it ;-)) but differing triathlon course PBs/PRs cannot sensibly be compared even to the same degree as an Olympic Marathon best might be compared to other Olympic marathons.
  4. The non-Olympic triathlon distances somehow seem to have evolved with no special consideration for watching but rather instead for event organisation and/or participation.
  5. The swim leg involves ‘not a lot to watch’
  6. The cycle leg can be super-processional and always seems much slower than a pure bike race

Even at the local level, to organise a triathlon event requires considerably more organisation than a running race. There needs to be: a decent amount of safe water to swim in; a place to securely rack bikes; and an extensive road course to ride a bike that is not impacted too greatly by traffic and road junctions. A pop-up triathlon, like a weekly 5k parkrun, simply can’t happen. It will always cost money to compete in a triathlon and much time to organise one.

Let’s now turn to the smiley-faced positives and some alternative ways forward

  1. Whilst the action in a triathlon is not always enthralling, the commentary can be. And maybe should be. Triathlon is a technical sport to execute and involves bike tech as well as complex physiology. I love listening to the F1 commentary or the TdF commentary just to hear what the super-informed pundits have to say. Yes Mr Boardman, I mean you. Same applies to triathlon commentary.
  2. Mixed Triathlon relay is included in the Commonwealth Games program (2014/8). This is a masterstroke in these politically correct days. Why can’t men and women compete together in such an event? Absolutely no reason whatsoever. So C’mon Mr IOC. Get it sorted. I think mixed-team-tri was bid for Rio but failed. Incidentally, the same principle should be applied to swimming to stop the ridiculous scenes where one competitor can win buckets full of medals. Let’s half the number of individual swimming events and make the team events include people who aren’t in the individual events. I digress.
  3. Sprint Triathlon could be a way to spice up the action for the viewing public. But it won’t happen
  4. You could conceive of a race devised for television where the Olympic distance is divided into half but completed twice. Or some other combinations that increases the number of transitions. But even transitions are not that exciting and the same level of ‘excitement’ would be covered in a relay event in any case. It won’t happen
  5. Longer distances could be included in the Olympics to introduce some diversity in the type of winning athlete. An Ironman-distance race and a Standard/Olympic distance race would likely never produce the same winners. But it won’t happen even though it could use a similar course.
  6. Duathlon could be easily included but it’s not popular enough and neither is an SwimRun race or Aquathlon or Bikeathon race.

Lots of ways forward. But they aren’t going to happen.

The only hope I can see for change at the Olympics is the introduction of a mixed relay and/or two male/female relays. New relay events could also quite plausibly happen with para-triathlon.

Perhaps instead we should look at what changes might happen in local races/events?

We’ve already seen

  • fragmentation to include off-road duathlon, Otillo/Broca swim-run, pool-based triathlons and super sprint triathlon;
  • the occasional inclusion or swap of another sport into the triathlon mix – for example adding canoeing/kayaking;
  • occasional live streaming of age group or local events; and
  • expansion into new geographic markets as well as the successful running of age-related championships that hold a good deal of kudos for the winners.

But we’ve also seen

  • Many more events to cater for the increased overall participation levels
  • Some events closing due to lack of numbers in a particular locality
  • Introduction of draft-legal racing for ITU Age Group Sprints.
  • Well attended national Age Group championships at Global and Continental levels
  • Restrictions on some technologies eg disc wheels in drafting races.

From those trends I can only see material & successful innovation like super-sprint events happening at the beginner end of the market. And I see geographic expansion as a given, especially into Asia.

Perhaps we COULD actually see innovation with an Endless Pool+Zwift+treadmill type event. Perhaps tech could also help with cameras mounted on swimmers or on the bikes?

Perhaps we could see the relaxation of rules for people just doing races for fun? Who really cares if someone goes off course if they are going to finish 40th in their age group (yes I know some of you care about that). As an occasional official, however, I would say that lax implementation of penalties in non-competitive scenarios already happens to a reasonable degree.

Perhaps my imagination or knowledge is limited? But beyond the relatively obvious trends, I can’t see much meaningful change occurring in how triathlon is served up to the general public to consume either as a participant or spectator.

Perhaps the real future, sadly, might lie with eTriathlon as we compete from the couch with EA Games being the winner rather than the ITU? I hope not.

Over to you…


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2 thoughts on “Future of Olympic Triathlon

  1. How about a relay consisting of your countries best swimmer, cyclist and runner? I think we’d (GB) have a good chance with Daniel Jervis, Chris Froome and Mo Farah….

    1. a la Superstars of the 70s. yeah that would be a great TV spectacle.
      i doubt the atheltes would be allowed to do it because of training scheduling

      PS plus you’d still have the cycling problem. there’s be no point in putting chris froome 30secs in front as he WOULD be caught by any chasing pack. so it would come down to the runner. the african countries would not have strength in depth in the other sports so maybe only the USA with RUPP would be there. if farah started 15 secs behind him would he catch him?

      but for a time trial/non-drafting it would work. but then it’s not great TV

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