20 best moments in Olympic triathlon history

With the Tokyo Games now here, it’s high time we celebrated the greatest moments of triathlon’s Olympic journey. From a classic in Rio to the Brownlees rocking Hyde Park, here’s our top 20…

Best triathlon Olympic moments ever

20. RISING HIGHEST
Rio Olympic Games 2016

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Gwen Jorgensen wins gold in Rio

As Brit Simon Lessing in 2000 and Javier Gomez in 2008 will testify, the Olympic Games triathlons haven’t always been kind to the pre-race favourites. Yet Gwen Jorgensen rose above the doubts in 2016 to claim gold and enter multisport’s list of immortals. With the Copacabana in Rio, Brazil, as the unrivalled backdrop, the American stayed near the front on the swim and bike legs, proving to her critics once and for all that she could handle herself on two wheels.

The 10km run became a straight shootout between the American and Switzerland’s reigning Olympic champion, Nicola Spirig. The two hadn’t faced one another since London 2012, and the mid-race sparring could be heard from the grandstand. Yet Jorgensen refused to be broken by the wily, tough-as-teak Swiss, and broke away with a lap to go to finally scoop America’s first Olympic Games tri gold

19. TRI JOINS THE OLYMPIC FOLD

Led by the formidable, irascible and divisive Geordie-turned-Canadian Les McDonald, tri’s route to Olympic Games inclusion was a rocky one. It
led to the formation of the International Triathlon Union (ITU), and enough federation jostling, power struggles and political manoeuvrings to fill a Netflix series. Most significantly and controversially, it saw the elite sport abandon its non-drafting cycling roots, a decision that caused the biggest rift in tri history and witnessed an exodus of athletes (including Brit superstar Spencer Smith) to Ironman. But in September 1994, the news arrived that triathlon would become an official Olympic Games sport at Sydney 2000. Multisport would never be the same again.

18. HISTORY MAKERS

Sydney Olympic Games 2000

Six years since tri was confirmed as an Olympic sport, the wait was finally over. At 10am on 16 September 2000, triathlon made its Olympic Games debut when 48 female triathletes dived into Sydney Harbour. Two hours later, local hearts were broken when Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon edged the Aussie favourite, Michellie Jones, to take tri’s first Olympic gold. McMahon failed to podium at an elite race again and would later test positive for EPO in June 2005, whereas Jones confirmed her status as one of the all-time greats with victory at the Ironman World Championships in 2006.

17. TRI SPIRIT
Athens Olympic Games 2004

Athletics will always have Derek Redmond accompanied by his dad to the finish line at Barcelona 1992. Triathlon’s version of this never-say-die attitude came at Athens 2004. In his debut Olympics, British triathlete (and future husband to Helen Jenkins) Marc Jenkins crashed on the hilly bike course and broke his wheel. Rather than DNF, he ran 1.5km of the hilly bike leg in his cleats with his bike on his shoulders, eventually placing 45th as the final finisher home. “It’s indicative of triathlon,” said race winner Hamish Carter on Jenkins’ determination. “Every athlete has worked so hard to be here and doesn’t want to let their country down.”

16. TECH TRENDS

Due to rigid rulings on gear and the draft-legal format, the Olympic Games doesn’t offer the same amount of innovation as Ironman. But the evolution of tri tech is still in evidence from Sydney 2000 to Rio 2016, with shortened tri-bars used by many in Sydney; Hamish Carter rocking one of the last two-piece Olympic tri-suits to victory in Athens 2004; and the Brownlees’ experimentation with the bulbous aero helmets at London 2012. What will Tokyo 2020 bring?  Will short-sleeved aero tri-suits replace the traditional vest? Will anyone try a bike/run shoe hybrid like the Australian team did for some ITU events a couple of years ago? And which latest tricks (or icy sponges) will be used to combat the oppressive Japanese heat? 

15. THE VICKY VS NON SHOW
Rio Olympic Games 2016

Vicky Holland and Non Stanford

Michelle Dillon’s sixth in 2004 and Helen Jenkins’ fifth in 2012 were both painfully close to securing Britain’s first female triathlon Olympic medals, but 2016 saw not one but two Brit stars vying for the bronze position. The fact that they were housemates and best friends added to the emotion, but, with the finish line in view, Vicky Holland finally delivered Britain’s first female tri medal by out kicking Non Stanford for bronze in front of a raucous Copacabana backdrop.

14. FROM 27 TO 1

Athens Olympic Games 2004

Four years after Brigitte McMahon’s surprise success in Sydney, Austria’s Australian-born Kate Allen again ripped up the form book in the women’s event in Athens, Greece. It wasn’t just the victory, but the manner of it that astounded spectators. The 34-year-old passed 27 competitors on the final leg as she ran 3mins faster than the Aussie favourite, Loretta Harrop, to overtake her former compatriot with the finish line in sight. In doing so, Allen would become the oldest triathlon Olympic champ to date.

13. A DREAM REALISED

Rio Olympic Games 2016

New Zealand’s Andrea Hewitt was always a consistently strong presence on the ITU circuit, clocking 41 podiums and 11 race wins since winning the U23 ITU world title in 2005. But heartbreak struck late in 2015, when Hewitt’s coach and fiancé, Laurent Vidal, another pillar of the racing scene, passed away during his sleep. Yet Hewitt refused to let the tragedy of his death stop her – and his – dream of performing strongly in Rio. She swiftly returned to several ITU podiums before placing an emotional seventh in Rio.

12. WORLD-CLASS DEBUT

Rio Paralympic Games 2016

(Not an Olympic moment but deserved of a mention here.)
Sixteen years after tri made its Olympics debut in Sydney came paratri’s Games bow in Rio, with 10 September 2016 forever a date etched into paratri history. The first event was the men’s PT4, which saw Germany’s reigning world champ Martin Schulz storm into the lead on the bike leg and extend his advantage on the run to become the first-ever Paralympic paratri champion in front of a packed Copacabana grandstand

11. THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION

Rio Olympic Games 2016

We’re not sure if it was T.S. Eliot or Emerson (or Aerosmith) who inspired the Instagram cliché, but ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ certainly applies to Mauritian athlete Fabienne St Louis ahead of Rio 2016. Having raced at London 2012, St Louis was back prepping for Rio when she was diagnosed with a rare form of salivary gland cancer in December 2015. She began treatment the following April, undergoing two surgeries to remove the tumour and another to remove further cancerous cells, and was left with face paralysis for three months leading up to Rio. And yet, on 20 August 2016, Fabienne St Louis stood alongside 54 other female athletes from 31 nations as the starting horn sounded in Brazil. Her DNF paling into insignificance when compared with the obstacles she faced making it to her second Olympics.

10. DOMESTIQUE NATURE

Beijing Olympic Games 2008

Is triathlon a team or individual sport? Whatever your view, the Canadian men’s duo of Simon Whitfield and Colin Jenkins at Beijing 2008 revolutionised elite racing with a domestique approach that’s since been replicated by the British men’s team in 2012 and 2016. Over to Jenkins to explain the background. “Simon won gold in Sydney and was a favourite for the 2004 Games. There was a breakaway during that race and Simon ended up in the chase pack. Triathlon Canada didn’t want a repeat of that situation. Once the team was announced my run training took a backseat. I was actually hit by a car six weeks out from the Games, but it didn’t hurt my swimming or biking.” The result saw Whitfield shepherded by Jenkins until the run leg, where Whitfield propelled himself to silver behind Jan Frodeno.

09. STATEMENT SHOWING

Beijing Olympic Games 2008

A 22-year-old Tim Don had a breakthrough performance at Sydney 2000 in finishing 10th, but eight years later it was the turn of a 20-year-old from Yorkshire to steal the British limelight ahead of more storied competitors. The Ming Tomb Reservoir was the setting for Alistair Brownlee grabbing the race by the horns – which would become a familiar sight in the years that followed – with the Brit leading on the run leg with 7km to go before fading to 12th. It was a foreshadowing for British tri’s greatest moment four years later, and the fact that he was far from satisfied with his result showed that here was a born champion. “I’m actually gutted as I came here to win a medal. I just wanted to beat them all. Hopefully four more years of maturity will help me get those other 11 places.” How right he was.

08. PRESSURE RELEASE

Rio Paralympic Games 2016

Andy Lewis wins Paralympic gold in Rio

(Again, not an Olympic moment, but as our first GB paratri medallist, Andy Lewis also deserves his place among the pantheon of Games’ greats.) As television or grandstand spectators, we only see the final chapter of the four-year Games journey, never the days of self-doubt. The Forest of Dean’s Andy Lewis was one such racer to feel the pressure of pulling on the national colours. “I crumbled in the holding camp,” Lewis admits. “The pressure got to me. I went to Rio as British, European and world champion. Everybody seemed to believe in me, but I couldn’t see it myself. I’d quit a £30,000-a-year job to move to Loughborough, away from my wife and kids, to become a £12k-a-year funded triathlete. Then, when the horn went, I started swimming the wrong way.”

Lewis recovered his composure to take victory in the PT2 category. The six paratri categories reaped four medals for Team GB at paratri’s Paralympic debut, with Lauren Steadman, Alison Patrick and Melissa Reid adding two silvers and a bronze to Lewis’s gold.

07. ARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE MACHINE
Athens Olympic Games 2004

Triathlon’s toughest-ever Olympic Games bike course. Relentless humidity and heat. A stacked field that featured Simon Whitfield, Sven Riederer and Tim Don. In the words of Aussie superstar Greg Bennett, who’d finish fourth that day at Athens in 2004, “If you’re going to get beaten, you want to be beaten by tough bastards. And that day, New Zealand surely had the toughest men in the field.”

One of the Kiwi triathletes was Bevan Docherty, the reigning ITU world champion. The other was 33-year-old Hamish Carter in his last shot at Olympic glory, having finished a disappointing 26th at Sydney despite being a pre-race favourite. If the smart money was on Docherty as the two close friends battled shoulder-to-shoulder, no one had told Carter. About 400m from the line the Aucklander used his race-day knowhow to break free and banish the memory of Sydney four years earlier.

“Everything was on the line for that race,” says Carter. “Athens was my last shot at the Olympics but I’d enough experience to re-write the way I trained and approached the race. My coach stuck to the fundamentals and I brought the innovation. I trained less than everyone else but when I trained hard, I trained harder than everyone else.” As Carter’s Antipodean rival Bennett said, here was one tough guy of triathlon.

06. END OF AN ERA
Beijing Olympic Games 2008

Scott and Allen, Newby-Fraser and Baker, Brownlee and Gomez… elite triathlon is defined by rivalries, with fine margins often deciding heavyweight contests. Two athletes dominated women’s short-course racing in the noughties, regularly winning any race they started but rarely seen on the same startline, which made Emma Snowsill and Vanessa Fernandes’ battle at Beijing 2008 such a seismic showdown. Portugal’s Fernandes had won the test event and ITU Worlds in 2007 but 2008 would see Australia’s Snowsill produce an undefeated annus mirabilis, breaking free early on the run in China and, with her asthma inhaler tucked into her top, once again unleashing the day’s fastest run split to usurp Fernandes by a minute. Snowsill would become Australia’s only Olympic gold medallist in tri, with the race also marking the beginning of the end of the Snowsill/Fernandes era.

05. LORD OF THE (FIVE) RINGS
Beijing Olympic Games 2008

A day after his future wife Emma Snowsill would write herself into tri Olympic history, Germany’s Jan ‘Frodo’ Frodeno made his breakthrough victory in triathlon racing. And what a stage to do it on. The German had been bubbling under the podium spots ahead of Beijing, with only 8% of the German tri community believing he would win gold (55% went for his compatriot Daniel Unger).

With 200m to go and facing the established tri order of 2000 Olympic champ Simon Whitfield, and ITU world champions Javier Gomez and Bevan Docherty, few would’ve bet on Frodeno to break the tape first. Yet no one had told the German, with the 27-year-old too quick in the final reckoning and finally breaking the canny Whitfield with 50m to go. “This year I’ve lost all of my sprints and that teaches you a lesson. I learnt mine at the right time,” Frodeno told 220 after the race. It wouldn’t be too long before he was learning how to win Ironman World Championships as well. 

04. CAPITAL GAINS

London Olympic Games 2012

After 12 years of hurt, dodgy guts and crashes on the Olympic stage for the various British squads, UK triathlon’s golden moment arrived on 7 August 2012. It was an era-defining day that the sport on these isles is unlikely ever to top. And yet the Brownlee brothers’ charge to gold and bronze in front of a six-figure crowd in Hyde Park wasn’t without incident. Alistair tore an Achilles at the start of 2012 (and had famously bonked at Hyde Park in 2010), while Jonny picked up a 15sec penalty out of transition on race day, which saw arch-nemesis Javier Gomez digging in until the final throes to split the duo for silver.

The Brownlees’ aggressive racing, honesty and ability confirmed their status as superstars of triathlon to
all those watching, and proved a major factor in triathlon’s UK growth in the following years. It was a monumental moment in British tri history, but the brothers would go even better at Rio 2016.

03. THE FINEST OF MARGINS

London Olympic Games 2012

The heroics of the Brownlees had a major bearing on British triathlon history and saw the UK’s first Olympic tri medals, but the women’s Olympic race three days before was even more dramatic. It witnessed bike-course carnage, an injured home hero battling the odds, and the closest sprint finish imaginable.

Brit hopes rested on Helen Jenkins and, after a wet bike course played havoc, the Welsh athlete was in the mix with 5km of the run to go. But it was Swiss star Nicola Spirig who controlled the tempo, dropping her rivals until the finishing straight when Sweden’s Lisa Norden surged back into contention. With a packed grandstand and the Hyde Park crowd producing a deafening noise, both athletes broke the tape together and plummeted to the floor. Norden raised both arms first in celebration and there was brief talk of a tie, before Spirig was announced as the winner. After 1:59:48 and 51,500 metres of racing, it’d come down to just 15 centimetres.

02. A STAR IS BORN

Sydney Olympic Games 2000

The favourite for the men’s event in triathlon’s Olympic Games debut was Simon Lessing, Britain’s five-time ITU world champion. But it’d be another Simon – a 25-year-old Canadian named Whitfield – who’d take the headlines. “Lessing just didn’t seem to be enjoying the occasion,” Whitfield recalled. “But I was having a blast!”

Whitfield entered T2 in 24th place before passing Germany’s Stephan Vuckovic late on the run to break the tape in front of the Opera House. A tri legend was born. Whitfield would go on to race in four Olympics, taking a silver in 2008 and receiving the honour of bearing Canada’s flag at the opening ceremony in 2012

01. RIO BRAVO

Rio Olympic Games 2016

Ali and Jonny Brownlee win gold and silver in Rio

Sixteen years after tri’s Olympic Games debut, triathlon felt like part of the established order at Rio in 2016. Part of the sport’s huge growth and raised profile, especially in the UK, was down to two Yorkshire siblings, who delighted tri fans new and old with their aggressive racing styles, strength across all disciplines and brotherly bond. And, with the setting of the world’s most famous stretch of beach, the Copacabana, and its Sugar Loaf mountain backdrop providing the scenic eye candy, it was the brothers Brownlee who utterly dominated in Brazil, controlling the race on the swim and bike before ditching the pretenders on the run.

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The Brownlees showed they still had the measure of the rest of the world, upgrading to gold and silver as the breakaway tactics played out to perfection. Ali would become the first man to win two Olympic tri golds; Jonny would follow his London 2012 bronze with a silver. Here’s hoping for more of the same in Tokyo.