Britain’s Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown crossed the line hand-in-hand in a shortened Olympic test event in Tokyo – and were disqualified for intentionally trying to tie.
It was the final twist in a dramatic morning of triathlon in Tokyo that had seen concerns over heat stress halve the run distance to 5km, world number one Katie Zafares crash out on the bike, and two-time world champion Flora Duffy return after more than a year out to be crowned the eventual victor.
The disqualifications also meant Vicky Holland, who needed a podium finish to guarantee Olympic selection, was promoted to third, which would have confirmed her slot for Tokyo 2020 – except the British selection criteria states a fundamentally changed race structure – such as halving the run distance – nullifies the opportunity.
At the time of publishing the British team have an appeal pending over the disqualification, but even if that is not successful – and it does appear clear-cut – Learmonth and Taylor-Brown gave selectors a huge nudge as they broke clear in dominant fashion to run stride-by-stride for most of the 5km run.
“I’ve never been as prepared for a race in my life,” Learmonth said before realising she had been disqualified. “Normally when I prepare everything goes wrong, so I was surprised it went so well. We worked well together, on the bike hoping to shell people. Because we’d done it all together, I was happy to cross the line together. My little belly must have edged hers. It’s not all about being lean.”
Her Leeds’ training partner, Taylor-Brown, currently ranked third in the World Triathlon Series, once place behind Learmonth, was equally blissfully unaware they had infringed. “It was hot, but I’m super happy,” she said. “I committed from the start and got in the front bike pack and we worked well together, dropping people constantly.
“On the run, me and Jess got a little bit of a gap, we jogged round and were chatting away. We worked together the whole time. We’re team-mates, room-mates and friends, and it’s nice to come across the finish line together with a smile on our faces.”
Holland produced the fastest run split, Non Stanford was promoted to seventh and Sophie Coldwell to ninth, indicating that the southern Japanese training base of Miyazaki that British Triathlon has used to acclimatise is paying dividends.
The decision to halve the run distance to 5km was made just four hours before the race start after a final check of the conditions.
The ITU defers to a measure called the Wet-Bulb Glow Temperature (WBGT), which combines temperature, humidity, wind chill and sunlight. Forecasts suggested that by the end of the run it would have risen to a ‘perceived temperature’ of 32, judged as an ‘Extreme Level’.
The water temperature for the 1,500m swim was also measured at a balmy 30.3 degrees, but it proved no obstacle for Learmonth who soon had the field strung out in the purpose-built Odaiba Bay, emerging 10sec clear of Summer Rappaport, the USA triathlete who would go on to benefit from Zafares’s crash to claim an Olympic qualification spot.
Zafares looked a looming threat in third, with the best of the other being Taylor-Brown in eighth, 17sec back, followed by Holland in 15th, Stanford in 17th, and Coldwell, whose strength is often the swim, in a disappointing 23rd.
Learmonth was pegged back by Zafares at the start of the bike, before the leading duo were quickly reeled in by a chase pack led by the returning 2016 and 2017 world champion Duffy.
Duffy was racing at this level for the first time since July 2018, yet showed few signs of rust as she pressed on at the front and on a technical course with many twists, Zafares came a cropper in seemingly innocuous circumstances when she appeared to hit a kerb on a straight.
The crash also brought down her compatriot Kirsten Kasper, but while Kasper was able to remount, it was race over for Zafares, who will look to recover before the World Series Grand Final in Lausanne in a fortnight where a comfortable mid-pack finish will ensure the world title.
The front group was whittled down to just seven by halfway with Holland, Stanford and Coldwell driving the pace of the second group to try and claw back some of the 58sec deficit.
At the front, Duffy and Learmonth continued to keep the tempo high and Emma Jackson, who won the last World Triathlon Series event in Edmonton was the next to suffer and lose contact.
The front pack made up of Duffy, Taylor-Brown, Learmonth, USA’s Taylor Spivey, Italy’s Alice Betto and Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes arrived in T2 1min 47sec ahead, before the two Brits and Duffy instantly opened a gap on to the 5km run.
As Duffy’s lack of race sharpness finally caught up with her, Learmonth and Taylor-Brown pulled away, looking comfortable throughout, but when neither contested the sprint finish and they linked hands to cross the line, it left officials first looking to the photo-finish to separate them and then turning to the rule book for a double disqualification.