Tokyo test event: 5 things we learnt
Disqualifications, contrived finishes, sprint finishes, cancelled swims, shortened races, E-Coli and oppressive heat, the Tokyo triathlon test events were not short of drama and controversy. 220 columnist Tim Heming reflects on the action
1. Duffy holds the key. Two-time ITU world champion Bermudan Flora Duffy, who hadn’t raced at this level for over a year because of injury, provided a timely reminder of how she dictates women’s triathlon racing. A case in point is that as one of the best swimmers and the strongest cyclist, Duffy’s presence means the Olympic race is likely to be decided by a breakaway – even on a flat course such as Tokyo. The only caveat to this is Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig, who races sparingly, but can perhaps match Duffy's power on two wheels, and has the potential to bring a chase pack back into contention. The Spirig factor aside, the knock-on consequence for selectors, not least the British, must be a further leaning towards triathletes who can make the front pack.
2. British qualification is no clearer. Despite the criteria for Olympic qualification being incredibly tough – primarily podiums in both the Yokohama World Series and Tokyo test event – there was still potential for it to sort out a couple of spots. But with no top three finishes in Yokohama, none on the men’s side in Tokyo, and the disrupted format in the women’s race, nothing, as yet, has been confirmed. On one hand it shows the strength in depth, particularly on the women’s side, but the risk becomes that competing triathletes have to peak twice in 2020, first for a further attempt to qualify and then the Games themselves. And as history has shown, that is not an easy task.
3. Tokyo too testing? Being part test event, part Olympic qualification event has worked well in the past for pre-Olympic action, but there were almost too many unknowns in Tokyo, which meant the testing part was rigorous, but the qualification aspect a lottery. While there was much brouhaha in the wider media over the disqualification of Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown for a contrived tie, the more critical part was providing clarification for the triathletes over whether, and by how much, their performances would count towards individual qualification. Vicky Holland, for example, knew that a podium guaranteed her a Tokyo 2020 spot. The race being cut to a 5km run ripped that chance away, yet she still produced the fastest run split, coped impressively with the heat, and, after the DQs, finished third. Does that help or hinder her chances? As the reigning world champion said: “I wouldn’t want to be a selector.”
4. A last word on the DQs. While the disqualification for hand-to-hand no-combat grabbed the headlines and split opinion, dwelling on it ad nauseam serves little purpose. As far back as 2012, triathletes were warned against deliberately crossing the line together, when the Brownlee brothers, dominant at the time, did the same at a lowkey race in Blenheim and were asked whether it was something they might consider in the Olympics. It’s been cast as a daft rule in some quarters, but is clearly stated in the rules and is there to respect the integrity of competition. Most within the sport would have known about it. Learmonth and Taylor-Brown just looked happy to have performed so well in the heat, and seemed oblivious, but while they went through the motions with the protest, few in the British Triathlon camp will really be complaining – including the duo, who are probably just kicking themselves over some lost prizemoney.
5. What now for 2020? It’s difficult to know what comes next for triathlon at Tokyo 2020, but nothing should be off the table. The new venue at Odaiba Marine Park struggled due to the water quality and that has to remain a fear. It’s not just a concern for triathlon either, the marathon swimmers won’t want to be on the eve of competition wondering what kind of E-Coli strain they might pick up the following morning. The heat stress measurement – the wet-bulb glow temperature – that was adhered to resulting in a shortened women’s run, has now also set a precedent. The ‘perceived temperature’ of 32 degrees that led to alteration is not extreme for the city at this time of year, and with the Olympics even earlier next summer, a repeat is likely. Relaxing guidelines that are in place to protect athletes’ health seems risky without an admission they were too strict in the first place, so do mitigating arrangements need putting in place before the event itself? And does this mean, that as has been hinted at before, the Olympics will become a sprint distance race?