The International Triathlon Union has fought persistently and successfully to add the mixed team relay to the Olympic programme and a third gold medal to triathlon’s lot.
The greater showcase is welcome. The International Olympic Committee, while not currently in the habit of axing sports, has needed some persuasion to retain modern pentathlon and wrestling on its roster in recent years, so improving the popularity of tri through the two-woman, two-man contest helps further weave it into the fabric of the Games.
Having been showcased in Commonwealth competition and become increasingly commonplace on the World Triathlon Series, it has few detractors, but what the format receives in plaudits, it also lacks in scrutiny. The mixed relay only works if it serves to complement the main event – yet there are warning signs that it might just undermine it.
As so often in life, potential ramifications don’t arise from poor intentions, but a flawed system. In this case it’s predicated on the longstanding truism that medals equal money, leading to national teams protecting funding by prioritising events where podium performances are most likely.
There is precedent. In the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland withdrew their female entrants from the individual event, saving them solely for the relay – and leaving home fans puzzled as to why there was no-one to cheer when the Auld Enemy had two on the podium.
This gaming of selection further threatens to mar Tokyo2020. Astute performance directors may feel compelled to concentrate on a well-drilled quartet for the shorter- format racing, instilling their charges with the message that should the solo competition not be going to plan they should ease up and save their legs.
The antithesis of the Olympic spirit? Absolutely. Far-fetched? Far from it. Last year in Hamburg, Australia’s Ashleigh Gentle was off the pace in the sprint race and quit. “Under normal circumstances I would NEVER usually ‘just DNF’,” she revealed on social media. “Under instruction from Triathlon Australia, I pulled out near the start of the run to save myself for the mixed relays.”
The Australians were beaten into second place by France the following day, the irony being that Gentle went on to win the end-of-season Grand Final and finish sixth overall in the series. In completing just five races compared to her rivals’ six, that decision not to stay the course in Hamburg resulted not just in loss of face, but several thousand AUS dollars.
Elite sport is full of calculated decisions, and when rewards are high, this is understandable if not commendable. But it’s also incumbent on those providing governance to make sure the framework of competition is robust so it cannot be abused in this manner. If triathletes don’t give their all in individual competition it might slightly increase the chances of a team medal but will damage something far more important – the long-term faith in our sport.