British Triathlon’s Mike Cavendish talks Olympic selection and strategy

Tim Heming chats to Mike Cavendish, British Triathlon's performance director, about the Olympic selection process, the choices made and why we are fielding just two men

Olympic tri selection

British Triathlon performance director Mike Cavendish joined 220 Triathlon columnist Tim Heming to discuss the upcoming Olympics, including the final team selections, the role of the reserve athletes, what to expect in Tokyo, and whether mistakes were made in failing to secure a third spot for the British men.


 There’s always much debate about Olympic selection, but often less certainty over who the individuals are, and their specific roles. Can you clarify the situation at British Triathlon?

We have a relatively small panel, there are just three voting members – myself, Ben Bright as Olympic head coach, and Glenn Cook who works for us on a contractual basis.

We always make sure our voting panel is independent from any kind of coaching relationships.

Then there’s Andy Salmon, our CEO, an independent representative – we had someone from British Athletics this time – a lawyer, a medical representative and a notetaker, and that’s pretty much it.

Generally, the way it works is that I’ll ask Ben to give a summary as to where we’re at in terms of qualification and the athletes in contention and then we’ll have a big discussion. Glenn will have his view, I’ll have mine and usually we come to the same viewpoint. If we don’t, we’ll have a vote.

It’s been a long five years since Rio, but are you happy with the final selection of five triathletes for Tokyo?

I am. I genuinely think any one of those five – and hopefully more – could win us a medal. Clearly, we’d love to have six rather than five there, but we don’t have a divine right to have three men and three women going and I think we’re in really good shape.

That extra year for Alex [Yee], in particular, has turned him from someone who was a real outside bet and, if everything went perfectly, could sneak a podium, to somebody who could absolutely be on the podium and will be right up there.

Jonny is a double Olympic medallist and world champion, and he knows how to get it right on one day in one race, and all three of the women have a shout. With another four-to-five weeks of prep, I think we’ll be in a good place.

The decision of the second men’s pick looked to go from being an impossible choice between Alex Yee and Alistair Brownlee to straightforward in the end. How did you see it? 

I can’t say I got an awful lot of sleep the week or so before Leeds WTCS, thinking how it was going to pan out. We had this dual challenge of trying to qualify the third spot and giving both Alistair and Alex an opportunity [to impress in their own right].

They were the two that were always going to be the most likely for that second spot, and giving those guys the opportunity to put their case forward for selection was a tricky ask.

It was potentially going to be very challenging, but ultimately we wanted it to be challenging. We’d much rather have had Alistair on the podium, Alex on the podium, and be faced with a really difficult decision. Yes, it [Alistair’s injury] made it easier for us, but that’s because we only had one athlete to choose from in the end, which was a shame.

And had they both finished on the podium in Leeds, who would have been picked?

No idea, I can’t tell you. It would have been such a tricky one. We told all the athletes pretty early on that Yokohama was going to be the race that would hold the greatest weight, simply because the Olympics are in that neck of the woods, and the [type of] course is much closer to Tokyo than Leeds.

Alex was fourth, Alistair couldn’t compete. Had we had both on the podium it would have been very tight, but Alistair was always up against it. We knew he was injured. We knew it was a big ask for him, and I think it was probably quite unlikely he was going to get near to where he needed to and, unfortunately, that’s where the performance ended up.

How did British Triathlon react to Alistair’s disqualification in Leeds?

It’s one of those things that’s an incident that’s dealt with within the rules of the sport and the race itself. He was disqualified, and if he finished first he’d have still been disqualified. It was clear cut, I don’t think we’d have appealed it, and if we had I don’t think we’d have been successful.

People get disqualified in the sport all the time. It’s exceptionally unlikely that anyone is going to be in that type of washing machine-type environment in an age-group race. So, no, we’re not planning on putting anything else out there about it.

I think the athletes in our pathway and world class programme will have seen that and learnt the lesson. They’ll know that if you do something like that in a swim and ultimately get caught you’re going to get disqualified – and that’s really the only lesson they need.

Will there be any directives on team tactics in Tokyo, such as 2012 when Lucy Hall and Vicky Holland were instructed to work for Helen Jenkins?

Not unless we have any big injuries between now and the Games and the athlete’s status changes. They are all in with a [medal] shout. Jonny will need a different race to Alex, Vicky would probably want a different race to Jess [Learmonth], but they have just got to go out and do their own race. So, no, we’ll let them get on and ultimately may the best man and woman win.

Do you think you got it wrong in not getting a GB athlete high enough up the rankings early enough to win the third team spot?

Honestly, I’ve thought about this a lot and no, I don’t think we did [get it wrong]. There are a few things at play here. I touched on it earlier, we don’t have this divine right to get a third male and female spot which I think a lot of people out there think we do. Australia are the only ones with three and three and they only just scraped across the line. Look at other powerhouses in USA and France. None of those have three either.

If this was the Rio Olympics with the qualification system used there we’d have three and three easily. With the way it is now, we just don’t have the depth on the men’s side to guarantee we get that third slot. Top 30 in the world is not an easy ask. Tom [Bishop] has been pretty unlucky, he had a crash in Hamburg in 2019, and pulled his calf before the world championships. Any of those races would have meant he had enough to get into the top 30.

If you look below Tom, the generation of males we’ve got coming through just weren’t good enough, quickly enough. If this was a year later and qualification didn’t start in 2018, I’d be pretty confident someone like Sam Dickenson could have done it, but it’s too early for him. We just didn’t have the athletes.

In an ideal world Alistair would have been competing in Olympic-distance races, but I think he earnt the right to go away and do other stuff and come back to it later. In hindsight, were there things we could have done differently? Yes, but I’m honestly not sure with the athletes we had at our disposal, and their age and profile, it would have made a huge amount of difference.

But British Triathlon does have established triathletes such as 2016 Olympian Gordon Benson and 2013 world junior medallist Grant Sheldon to call on. So, what happened there?

They’ve just not had the form. Gordon was a 2016 Olympian, but he’s never been ranked consistently inside the top 30 in the world, and Grant similarly. He had a couple of really strong years, and has gone off the boil since then. We’ve absolutely been trying to get them back on the boil and get them ready, but Gordon had a really significant shoulder injury. Grant similarly had various injuries.

Looking back, could we have spotted those injuries earlier and could we have rehabbed them quicker? You can always do things better and differently in hindsight. They’ve just not had the raw ability in the last couple of years to secure that spot. I think they have it, but they haven’t been able to demonstrate it unfortunately.

 Will be nominated reserve triathletes fly to the Games as part of the initial party?

They will all travel out to Tokyo. We can’t risk them not flying out because of quarantine. We have plans D, E, F and G if we get multiple injuries, but hopefully we won’t. Because we’ve only got two men competing, we might decide to take a couple of reserves.

Do you have thoughts on who will compete in the mixed relay and the order in which they’ll race?

We’ll have to see how they do in the individual, and if they pull up injured or not. If we’re looking to use the late athlete replacement policy we only have about 36 hours after the women’s race to assess medical status, recovery and heat stress.

Are you able to repeat the same holding camp arrangements that proved successful for the test event in 2019?

We plan on doing pretty much exactly the same thing. We’ve had to submit detailed plans as to what facilities we’ll use, where we’re going to go, and it’s down to the individual prefectures as to how they manage that.

We’re in Miyazaki for our holding camp, and they’ve been really good. We’re the only Olympic and Paralympic triathlon team there and we’re expecting to be able to do pretty much what we did previously, although we’re probably going to have to be a bit more organised.

In 2019, athletes could walk out of the door and go for a run or cycle where they wanted. Now we’ll have to go in groups when we say we’re going to. We’ll swim in the hotel pool we’ve booked exclusively, and the trails are pretty self-contained, so from a set-up perspective we should be able to operate as we did in 2019.

Tokyo will be a bit different. We’re staying out of the Olympic village and are expecting it to be relatively restricted but not as much as Yokohama WTCS. They wouldn’t be able to control things as much as they did for Yokohama anyway, not least because you’ve got the world’s media and various commercial partners descending.

We’re still expecting to be able to get outside, although the reality is we’ll probably do most of our training on turbos because there’s not really anywhere to ride in Tokyo anyway. The British Olympic Association have got us a private pool, and it’ll just be going out for a couple of runs. We’re not there that long in advance of the competition so it will be turning the legs over and not a lot else.

We won’t know what we’ll get until we get on the ground, and we’ll have to suck it and see, but we’ve tried to prepare our athletes for the unexpected and to be able to deal with change. They’ve done that well so far. In Yokohama, what we were expecting and what we got were pretty different every day, and the guys did a good job in adapting.

British Triathlon’s lottery funding is fixed until Paris, but will the next award be dependent on the number of Olympic medals won here?

UK Sport have been pretty clear that they’re investing in sports that have a good pathway and a clear strategy in terms of how they’ll utilise resources to try and get medals on the world stage, but that they’re not basing everything on medals. We’re certainly not sitting here thinking we have to come back with X number of medals to keep our funding.

I think it’s the right way to go. There’s still a clear focus on performance and on performing well at the Olympics and Paralympics but they are equally cognisant of the fact that you’ve got to be able to plan further ahead than the next Olympic Games. You’ve got to make this an eight or 12-year strategy because if you don’t you’ll go from cycle to cycle chasing your tail.

Will the plans for Olympic preparation be repeated for the Paralympics?

We did a different strategy prep wise for the paratri for the test event with a heat camp overseas in the States. All of that has been taken off the table by Covid so it’s a complete repeat of what the Olympic guys are doing. A heat camp in Loughborough for a couple of weeks, then the same schedule. With a bit of luck we can learn what hasn’t worked from the Olympics to make the Paralympics even more straightforward.

Finally, the future looks bright with a number of upcoming athletes producing strong performances at World Triathlon continental cups. How do you see it?

The future is bright and that is down to the work the guys have done on the pathway for a number of years. Having the likes of Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, Vicky Holland and Georgia Taylor-Brown as role models has definitely helped us a lot. If you can see it, you can be it.

Our challenge in the past, certainly behind Al and Jon, has been converting that great pool of talent into World Series level and podiums, and that’s our challenge for the future too.

We’ve definitely got a lot of green shoots. We’re going to invest as much as we can in coaching, so we have the right coaches and right facilities for the athletes. I’d like to think in another three-to-five years we’ll be in just as strong a position as we are now, if not stronger.

Got Olympic fever? Make sure you know the lyrics to your national anthem! And for our British readers here are the lyrics to God Save The Queen


Don’t miss the ‘220 guide to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics’, on sale now. Our 17-page section include essential viewing information, course routes, Team GB profiles, and our pick of the top individual and mixed relay contenders. Plus, we countdown the top 20 Olympic triathlon moments and speak exclusively to two-time Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee about his new book,Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite.