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Home / News / What does the future hold for triathlon in the Olympic Games?

What does the future hold for triathlon in the Olympic Games?

Changes could be afoot for triathlon in the Olympic Games, but the sport must be wary of providing the wrong answer to the right question, says 220 columnist Tim Heming

Faster, higher, stronger… and getting it over with quicker. For those who thought the 100m sprint finals offered quickfire entertainment, the introduction of speed climbing to the Tokyo Olympics made them look pedestrian – the fastest athlete to assail the wall whacked the button in 5.45sec.

Research shows that global audiences’ attention spans are dwindling, and the International Olympic Committee pays close attention because it needs millions tuning in to stop the sponsorship bucks going the same way.

So how triathlon – at the best part of two hours – was received by a mixed audience of those invested only at the Olympics, and die-hards who’d happily watch a live-streamed Ironman for 8hrs, will be closely monitored.

The standard distance, currently the Olympic distance, was already on an uneasy footing. World Triathlon president, Marisol Casado, made her feelings clear in 2016 that it would likely revert to a sprint. There was a stay of execution for Tokyo, but as we head towards Paris, traditionalists should be braced for change.

The irony is it was the casual fan who marvelled at the Tokyo action, and triathlon aficionados, those you’d think would be stubbornly against change, who struggled with the spectacle.

To the uninitiated, a 1,500m swim, 40km bike ride, and 10km run are herculean feats highlighted when the women coped admirably as a typhoon blew through, or by Kristian Blummenfelt spewing the contents of his energy gels all over the blue carpet. This is an enduring selling point to tri at the Games, and a welcome contrast to explosive sports elsewhere that are over in seconds.

The problem is the terrain, and as long as you have hills, as there were in Athens in 2004 and Rio in 2016, the races deliver a compelling narrative

In contrast, for many of those that know triathlon better, a flat city centre course where a large pack converged in the men’s race and ‘rolled around’ for the best part of 40km, became a bore-fest. The jury was split, but it does seem the writing is on the wall that the race distance will be cut to a sprint, or even a jumbled-up shorter format.

Away from the Olympics, World Triathlon events are edging that way, but if it happens it would be a crying shame, and the wrong answer to the right question.

The issue of the bike leg being neutralised does need addressing because triathlon should be a true test of all three disciplines, but it’s not the distance that’s the issue. The mixed team relay was a success, but not simply because of its length – it wasn’t much shorter in duration than the men’s individual race.

The problem is the terrain, and as long as you have hills, as there were in Athens in 2004 and Rio in 2016, the races deliver a compelling narrative. If the city centre topography isn’t favourable, take the sport to a rural location for the Olympics. Finding the ideal venue may not be straightforward, but there is time. Paris has plenty of other events offering backdrops to show off its considerable charms.

Illustration: Daniel Seex

Profile image of Tim Heming Tim Heming Freelance triathlon journalist


Experienced sportswriter and journalist, Tim is a specialist in endurance sport and has been filing features for 220 for a decade. Since 2014 he has also written a monthly column tackling the divisive issues in swim, bike and run from doping to governance, Olympic selection to pro prize money and more. Over this time he has interviewed hundreds of paratriathletes and triathletes from those starting out in the sport with inspiring tales to share to multiple Olympic gold medal winners explaining how they achieved their success. As well as contributing to 220, Tim has written on triathlon for publications throughout the world, including The Times, The Telegraph and the tabloid press in the UK.