Is it time for the World Triathlon Series to return to a one-off race for the world title? The question has been often posited since the International Triathlon Union first introduced the multi-race series in 2009 that demands triathletes accrue points throughout the season before lining up for an upweighted Grand Final.
The sport’s luminaries have long lamented abandoning a single showdown format, among the questioning voices, Alistair Brownlee. The two-time Olympic champion has featured increasingly sparingly since winning a second world title in 2011, but in enjoying the Grand Final spoils four times, has underscored his appetite for one-day competition.
The series concept is no failure. It gives prominence to regional races, is admirably global to widen triathlon’s outreach, and has established host venues that draw large crowds (Hamburg and Leeds) and loyal investment (Yokohama and Edmonton). It’s also climaxed in notable drama – the Jonny Brownlee versus Javier Gomez sprint finish in London, 2013, or Jonny’s implosion in Cozumel in 2016.
Yet it suffers, not because of its drawn-out format, but because virtually all stakeholders are beholden to major Games. Federations’ funding is majorly linked to Olympic performance, meaning jobs teeter perilously on results of a once-every-four-year contest. For those racing, a medal unlocks non-endemic sponsorship opportunities, which, given lowly prize money, few would begrudge. The net result is that the WTS’s lustre is stymied because the world’s best can never fully commit – and the talent drains as follows…
The year after the Olympics, triathletes, either frazzled by the qualification process, or realising they don’t have the top-end speed to still be competitive in four years, turn to other options, with many finding a niche – and more autonomy – in non-drafting events.
The following year, the Commonwealths take precedence for many leading nations. Take 2018. Both Flora Duffy and Henri Schoeman peaked for gold in Gold Coast in April, yet couldn’t sustain form and fitness to mount a WTS challenge. The shame being Duffy was favourite for a third straight title.
Attention then turns back to Olympic qualification, but the vagaries of nations’ selection criteria mean triathletes race selectively, tactically and often conservatively to secure an Olympic berth.
In Games’ year, the focus is all on the one race. As if to emphasise, no triathlete has won Olympic gold and the WTS in the same year.
For the WTS to prosper, it needs all the best triathletes to be invested all of the time. In turn, that helps engage both public and sponsors, and lays a foundation for fans to care enough to follow the narrative of the season and understand the nuance of a Grand Final when the first across the line isn’t necessarily the world champion. Otherwise, a one-off showdown is the way to go.