It’d taken years of planning, deals, courting, boycotts and, with the implementation of draft-legal racing, a fundamental change to the nature of Olympic-distance elite triathlon. But finally, on 16 September 2000, triathlon’s time in the Olympic Games spotlight had arrived.
The women were the first off the Sydney Harbour starting pontoon, with hometown girl Michellie Jones the overwhelming favourite for the title. Jones had won the Sydney World Cup races/test events in May 1999 and April 2000 to establish herself as the main athlete to fear in the dominant Australian women’s team.
In front of an expectant crowd, Jones and Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon would be level-pegging throughout until the Swiss 33-year-old broke free late on the run to break Aussie hearts and become triathlon’s first Olympic champion. McMahon’s victory may not have been as out-of-the-blue as some have suggested (the Swiss athlete beat Jones in Lausanne a month before the Olympics), yet the Swiss athlete would never scale such heights again and retired from the elite circuit in 2005 after testing positive for blood-boosting EPO.
“Hopefully I’ll be at the next Olympics,” said an elated and defiant Jones at the Sydney finish line, yet it wasn’t to be for the Aussie at Athens 2004, with the Triathlon Australia selectors overlooking Jones (and Emma Snowsill) in favour of the rookie athlete Maxine Seear, who would DNF at the Games. The omission of Jones, overlooking the fact that she’d won the Athens test event, saw the Aussie move to non-drafting long-course racing. And with it, the Ironman world title in 2006 and a place at the top of our female triathletes of all-time list.
The men’s event would also witness a surprise in Sydney, with the favourites falling by the wayside. Going into the race, New Zealand’s Hamish Carter was in fine fettle, with a gold, silver and a top five in his three ITU races that season. The scene was set for an Opera House showdown with Simon Lessing of Great Britain, the four-time ITU world champion who’d dominated ITU racing alongside Spencer Smith in the 1990s. But it wasn’t to be for Lessing and Carter, with the former overcooking the bike leg to place ninth and the latter succumbing to pressure.
“The Olympic environment can be a huge distraction,” Carter has said. “There's a lot of added pressure with a once-every-four-year spectacle. The desire to be successful can crush you. That was my mistake in Sydney; getting caught up in it all.”
Coming soon after his MBE from the Queen, Lessing also endured a tough experience in Sydney to finish ninth. "By trying to keep pace during the cycling I wore myself out," Lessing told The Independent post-race. The scene was set for a new star of triathlon. That man was Canada’s Simon Whitfield. “Lessing just didn’t seem to be enjoying the occasion,” Whitfield recalls. “But I was having a blast!”
The Canadian would later become famous for his tactical knowhow and big race ability. But there was little to outside observers that suggested that an Olympic title was imminent. In hindsight, however, the race best run split at the ITU World Cup race in Corner Brook six weeks before Sydney was a sign of an athlete peaking at the optimum time.
After declining a spot on the Australian team due to his dual citizenship (his father is Australian), Whitfield, his coach Lance Watson and ‘Big Brother’ Greg Bennett (who was only named as a substitute for the Aussie squad), began working on Whitfield’s anaerobic run speed, producing 2:40mins 1km repeats. “When he ran 400m in 54secs at the end of a hard track workout in Nike Air Max trainers, not spikes, we knew he was in great shape,” says Watson.
Cut to race day and Whitfield came out of the Sydney Harbour waters 30secs behind Lessing and Carter, and would exit T2 in 25th place after a bike collision nearly wiped him out. “The crash was almost the perfect stimulus to fire me up,” he says. Whitfield charged out of transition to leave a host of world-beaters in his wake.
With 2km to go, Germany’s Stefan Vuckovic had control of the race, at one point opening a 20m gap between himself and the chasing Canadian. “I was thinking, silver at the Olympics is actually quite awesome,” Whitfield adds, “and then I looked over my shoulder and saw third and fourth stacking up behind and thought that fourth would be terrible, so I upped the pace.”
With the Opera House finish line in sight, Whitfield’s sprint reps reaped the rewards and he passed the German to win by 13secs and enter triathlon immortality.