Who are the triathlon Olympic podium contenders at Tokyo 2020?

Who could topple the Brits? We predict the top athletes to watch at the coming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Who are the triathlon Olympic podium contenders at Tokyo 2020?

Tokyo 2020 is set to be a Games like no other, and not just because of the pandemic. The tri competition is wide open, there’s a relay event to be won and, most thrilling of all, we have five genuine medal hopes representing Team GB. Tim Heming takes a look at the main rivals…

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There has never been an Olympic build-up like this before. It feels like a step into the unknown for the Games, which extends to triathlon, too. For the first time, we’ll get to witness the new team mixed relay, where 17 countries will be in tag-team action contesting super sprint-distance glory.

But before that, the competition in the individual races is wide-open. Unlike previous Olympics, where names such as the Brownlees, Javier Gomez and Gwen Jorgensen have taken top billing, this time it’s possible to make a winning case for many more. Thankfully, this includes all of triathlon  Team GB, who’ll arrive with five genuine medal contenders in their own right, plus a formidable relay quartet.

Yet they’ll also have their work cut out to win one, with leading contenders coming from a mixture of athletes with proven Olympic pedigree, fearless in-form youngsters and dark horses suited to the hot and humid conditions presented by a Japanese summer. Even having a handle on form is tricky.

Where World Series races traditionally provide a pecking order, it’s been different for 2021 as triathletes adhering to Covid compliance have been discerning with their schedules, and some, such as those in Australia and New Zealand, haven’t had much choice at all.

Despite the early starts, the heat will be on, so it’s time to look more closely at the contenders, those who might follow in the footsteps of Alistair Brownlee and Gwen Jorgensen from Rio, become the inaugural team champions, and etch their names permanently into Olympic triathlon history…

The contenders for the women

FLORA DUFFY (BERMUDA)

Flora Duffy at 2018 Comonwealth Games in Australia. Getty Images.
Flora Duffy at 2018 Comonwealth Games in Australia. Getty Images.

Forced to pick one name as the Olympic favourite, then it would be Bermuda’s 2016 and 2017 world champion. Famed for her bike handling skills, 2018 began with Commonwealth Games gold on the Gold Coast and two more World Series wins as Duffy looked set for an Olympiad of Gwen Jorgensen-style domination.

Thwarted by a foot injury and subsequent long layoff, Duffy returned to win the shortened Tokyo test event in 2019 – although victory was a little hollow after Georgia Taylor-Brown and Jess Learmonth were disqualified for hand-holding. Last year she placed second to Taylor-Brown in the Hamburg world champs and finished the season strongly, before injury hit once more. However, a fourth place return in the Leeds’ World Series race, where she produced the day’s fastest run, shows she’s closing in on top form once more.

NICOLA SPIRIG (SWITZERLAND)

Nicola Spirig at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow. Getty Images.
Nicola Spirig at the Glasgow 2018 European Championships. Getty Images.

There’s a paradox about the Swiss. Despite being 39 and heading for her fifth Games with a realistic chance of becoming both the oldest Olympic triathlon champion and the most successful, it’s still unclear how much of a contender she’ll be. That’s because Spirig races so sparingly against the very best in the World Series, and while being a mum-of-three can explain much of that, she’s long since ploughed a lone furrow in race selection. This was typified by winning Ironman 70.3 Gran Canaria in April as a “training race”, though a more recent victory in a second-tier World Cup in Lisbon shows she has the Olympic-distance range dialled in, too. As strong as anyone on the bike, it was gold in London and silver in Rio. Don’t rule out another history-making medal here.

KATIE ZAFERES (USA)

HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 06: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally enhanced.) Katie Zaferes of USA (world leader) poses with the trophy on the podium after the ITU World Triathlon Elite women sprint distance during the Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon on July 06, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Katie Zaferes at Hamburg World Triathlon 2019. Getty Images.

If the Games had been held as planned in 2020, Zaferes would have started as favourite – now there’s half a nation questioning whether she should go at all. The 2019 world champion saw a first attempt at automatic qualification end with a broken nose and 23 stitches after crashing out in the test event. Then the world changed and Zaferes sadly lost her father. Since triathlon’s delayed restart she’s looked nothing like the athlete who won five from seven World Series races on the way to her world title.

The result was a selection dilemma of choosing between an underperforming Zaferes and ever-consistent Taylor Spivey for the final Olympic berth. Spivey had beaten Zaferes in both Japan and Leeds and was ranked second in the world, but the US selectors gambled on Zaferes’ form coming good.

Also in the mix…

Taylor Knibb and Summer Rappaport add plenty of firepower as the USA tries to defend the women’s Olympic tri title. Two very different athletes, former junior and under-23 world champion Knibb is a powerhouse on the bike, whereas Rappaport’s strengths lie on the run. Another athlete with stellar foot speed is the free-flowing Cassandre Beaugrand. The French star burst on to the world stage as a 21-year-old by leaving the rest of the field in her wake in Hamburg in 2018. Elsewhere, strong swim-biker and Leeds WTCS winner Maya Kingma (NED) has enjoyed a breakthrough summer and looks a cert to be in any breakaways. For an outside chance, keep an eye on Germany’s Laura Lindemann and Kingma’s Dutch team-mate Rachel Klamer.

The contenders for the men

VINCENT LUIS (FRANCE)

HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 06: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally enhanced) World Triathlon overall leader Vincent Luis of France is seen during the ITU World Triathlon Elite women sprint race on July 06, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Vincent Luis at 2019 World Triathlon Hamburg. Getty Images.

For a nation steeped in triathlon, France is overdue an Olympic medal, but with the reigning and two-time world champion it may be on the verge of getting one. It’ll be a third Games for the man from Vesoul, who looks more youthful than his 32 years and broke six years of Spanish dominance to win a first world title in 2019. He retained the crown in the one-off shootout in Hamburg in a pandemic-affected 2020 that became part of a five-race winning streak. But question marks remain.

The absence of triathletes such as Alistair Brownlee to help forge breakaways doesn’t help Luis’ cause, and although his place in Tokyo was assured, he was also nowhere near his best in finishing sixth in Yokohama in May. After an 11th place in London 2012 and seventh in Rio 2016, he’s started turning potential into success elsewhere, but getting on the podium in 2021 doesn’t look the certainty it once did.

KRISTIAN BLUMMENFELT (NORWAY)

Kristian Blummenfelt at IRONMAN 70.3 Middle East Championship Bahrain.
Kristian Blummenfelt at 2017 Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship Bahrain.

Vying with Lucy Charles-Barclay to be the most versatile triathlete in the world, while others have kept their powder dry in 2021, the Norwegian has been picking up victories and thrusting his name firmly into medal contention. Blummenfelt, who holds the record for the world’s fastest middle-distance time and is signed up alongside Alistair Brownlee for the Sub-7/ Sub-8 project next year, plans his racing schedule the same way as he commits to racing… all action. It means he’s already raced in Japan, Portugal, Italy and the UK this summer – winning the first two in style – before heading home for final preparations.

MORGAN PEARSON (USA)

Morgan Pearson at Hamburg World Triathlon 2019. Tommy Zaferes image.
Morgan Pearson at Hamburg World Triathlon 2019. Tommy Zaferes image.

The former All American runner’s rise in tri has been little short of meteoric. It only started in 2017 when, on driving to see his family in New Jersey, he stopped off to compete at the US age-group champs – and won. By the following year he was racing professionally. At the world champs in Hamburg last summer, he had the fastest run split in the mixed relay to see off GB’s Alex Yee and anchor the US to second. However, this year he’s really hit the headlines. An emotional third place in Yokohama sealed an Olympic qualification spot he dedicated to his brother Andrew, who died in March, and then a silver medal in Leeds put the 27-year-old second in the World Series rankings. Despite a lack of experience on the big stage, he goes to Tokyo as a serious contender.

Also in the mix…

If the women’s race is hard to predict, the men’s is even tougher. Spaniards Fernando Alarza, Javier Gomez and Mario Mola should be suited to conditions. While perhaps not quite the threat they once were, Gomez and Mola have won every World Series race in nearby Yokohama from 2014-2018. Canadian Tyler Mislawchuk is another who looks suited to the heat and humidity and showed it when winning the test event in 2019. Hayden Wilde was third that day and a fifth place in Leeds shows he’s getting into shape. The Belgians Marten van Riel and Jelle Geens also have chances. Van Riel was sixth in Rio, and won both the Super League Arena Games meets earlier this year. Geens was second in Yokohama in May and a winner on the World Series in 2019. Then there’s South Africa’s Rio bronze medallist Henri Schoeman and Australian Jake Birtwhistle, who could both be in with a shot.

Mixed team relay contenders

Valentin Wernz of Germany and Laura Lindemann of Germany compete in the ITU World Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships 2019 in Hamburg. Getty Images.
Valentin Wernz and Laura Lindemann of Germany compete in World Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships 2019 in Hamburg. Getty Images.

Whether it’s the development programme that churns out athletes by the dozen or the proving ground of their longstanding Grand Prix series, for a favourite for Tokyo’s mixed team relay, look no further than France. Raced over a 300m swim, 6.8km bike leg and 2km run, the two-man, two woman contest has picked up momentum ahead of its Olympic debut, with more events added to the World Series calendar and more nations competing.

It’s also become clear what makes a successful relay team: 1. Not having a weakness in any of the four legs. 2. Having a fast runner on the anchor. The French tick both boxes. Whether Dorian Coninx or Leo Bergere ends up racing with Leonie Periault and Cassandre Beaugrand, there’s little doubt it’ll be two-time and reigning world champion Vincent Luis on the final leg.

France have won the last three mixed relay world titles and Luis’ finishing kick is a big reason why, but they won’t have it all their own way on 31 July. Great Britain also look formidable. Pair two of Jess Learmonth, Georgia TaylorBrown or Vicky Holland with Jonny Brownlee and it’s hard to think they won’t be in contention before a final leg handover to Leeds WTCS winner Alex Yee.

Then there’s the USA, who were second behind France in last year’s world champs in Hamburg and could have three of that quartet lining up in Tokyo. Two from Katie Zaferes, Summer Rappaport or Taylor Knibb will join Kevin McDowell – picked specifically ahead of Matt McElroy for the relay – and Morgan Pearson.

Don’t write off Australia, either. If the Commonwealth Games winners are still in contention by the time Jake Birtwhistle takes over for the final leg, they’ll be a threat for gold. The Aussies are traditionally strong at the relay having been on the world championship podium five straight years from 2015, and former track runner Birtwhistle is one of the few men to have beaten Luis in a sprint finish, in Hamburg in 2019. Australia also have the advantage of being the only nation to qualify three men and three women for the Games, so have maximum options for selection.

Behind the favourites, the self-styled Belgium Hammers, who won the final qualification event in Lisbon, are fortified by the men’s pairing of Marten van Riel and Jelle Geens. With Maya Kingma and Rachel Klamer, the Netherlands look strong on the women’s side, plus there’s 2018 Commonwealth bronze medallists New Zealand and 2019 world runners-up Germany with Jonas Schomburg, Justus Nieschlag and Laura Lindemann.

Switzerland, Denmark and Italy will also fancy their chances of an upset, with many of their athletes prioritising the relay over the individual event. Much can happen in the throes of a mixed relay, but one thing is certain, this one will be more competitive than ever before.

PREVIOUS WORLD CHAMPIONS

Men
2020 Vincent Luis (France)
2019Vincent Luis (France)
2018 Mario Mola (Spain)

Women
2020 Georgia TaylorBrown (Great Britain)
2019 Katie Zaferes (USA)
2018 Vicky Holland (Great Britain)

TOKYO 2019 TEST EVENT PODIUM
Men
1 Tyler Mislawchuk (Canada)
2 Casper Stornes (Norway)
3 Hayden Wilde (New Zealand)

Women
1 Flora Duffy (Bermuda)
2Alice Betto (Italy)
3 Vicky Holland (Great Britain)

RIO 2016 OLYMPIC MEDALLISTS

Men
1 Alistair Brownlee (Great Britain)
2 Jonny Brownlee (Great Britain)
3 Henri Schoeman (South Africa)

Women
1 Gwen Jorgensen (USA)
2 Nicola Spirig (Switzerland)
3 Vicky Holland (Great Britain)

2020 MIXED RELAY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP PODIUM
1 France
2 USA
3 Great Britain

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Image credit: Getty Images