Triathlon is warming up for the Tokyo test event in more ways than one. Anticipation is building among athletes looking to all but guarantee Olympic and Paralympic selection and fans who will be granted a window into how next year’s Games might play out. And then, well, there’s the weather…
If 2016 in Rio was predicted to be hot, racing along the famous Copacabana stretch has nothing on what competitors are bracing themselves for at the Japanese capital’s Odaiba Marine Park. Last year the nearby city of Kumagaya logged a record 41.1 degree Celsius and start-times have already been moved forward to 8am (7.30am for the test event) to try and mitigate the heat. It might still not be enough. The last time Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games, they moved the whole thing back to October.
Nations are investing time and money in finding the best ways to cope. Jonny Brownlee has turned the heaters up to max in his conservatory in Leeds and the British contingent are currently acclimatising in a training camp in Miyazaki in southern Japan. Come race day,where triathletes needed a Dryrobe to stay warm in London’s chilly Hyde Park in 2012, this time they will wear cooling vests in an effort to keep core temperatures as low as possible before the off.
Previous test events have rarely been a reliable indicator of who will triumph the following year, with only Alistair Brownlee (2011) and Gwen Jorgensen (2015) repeating their success from the trial run, but they do play an important role in allowing both triathletes and their support teams the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the course and conditions to reduce the chances of anything unforeseen scuppering the main event.
Even more important for athletes is that test events are often nominated by federations as key selection races. Such is the case with British Triathlon for Tokyo, whose qualifying criteria is so strict that only Jonny Brownlee and Vicky Holland, as existing Olympic medal winners, have an opportunity to qualify outright. Their task is to finish in the top three.
It’s a policy that is indicative of both the strength in depth of British talent and selectors wishing to keep their options open as long as possible to guarantee the best three male and female triathletes are on the start-line at the Games.
In reality, a podium performance by any British triathlete would go a long way to putting them in pole position for selection. On the men’s side, Brownlee lines up with Alex Yee and Tom Bishop. Brownlee and Yee have both shown they have the talent and potential to win medals–Jonny’s being long proven and Yee, a fresh-faced 21, but already with a World Series second place and World Cup win to his name. As long as they are fit, it is unthinkable that both will not go.
Bishop is an experienced World Series racer, but hasn’t shown he can make the leap from being a regular top 20 finisher to a genuine podium contender. He did finish second in Abu Dhabi in 2017, but has only once cracked the top 10 this season.
It means that whatever happens in the test event, the selectors are likely to wait until Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee decides whether to have a fourth crack at Olympic glory, or, even though they have moved away from the pilot model, whether he would be drafted in as the ultimate swim-biking support athlete to help Yee and Brownlee win a medal.
The men’s choices are relatively cut and dried compared to the British women. It’s why putting down a marker in the test event is of the utmost importance to all–and especially Vicky Holland. The reigning world champion has had a disappointing season by her increasingly high standards. She’s had three top 10 finishes, but has placed no higher than seventh and on every occasion has been beaten by two or three compatriots. At 33 years of age, while she might have the experience of London 2012, Commonwealth medals and a bronze to show from Rio, she will desperately want to cement her slot here or could miss out altogether.
Joining her on the start-line will be Jess Learmonth, Georgia Taylor-Brown, Non Stanford and Sophie Coldwell. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Learmonth is ranked No 2 in the world, Taylor-Brown No 3 and Stanford No 5, but because they also came sixth, fifth and eighth respectively–missing a top three spot–in Yokohama in May, British Triathlon’s first nominated qualifying event, none can qualify outright.
To add more complexity, it’s also not as straightforward as just having a straight shootout for the places, as effectively happened between Helen Jenkins and Jodie Stimpson on Gold Coast in 2016, because selectors will also be considering racing styles to provide the best chance of a medal.
The nub of it is that Learmonth and Coldwell are powerful swim-bikers, Taylor-Brown is blossoming as the complete triathlete, and Stanford and Holland rely more on their run. The biggest challengers to the Brits are currently American Katie Zafares and, if she regains fitness, Bermudan Flora Duffy. Both are strong swimmers and often blast away from the front to gain a gap on to the final 10km. But Tokyo is also a pan-flat course, meaning it’s typically easier for a chasing bike pack to catch back up. Do selectors opt for Learmonth and hope she’s in a small enough breakaway to grab a medal, or jettison her completely, gambling it will slow the race up at the front and bring the other British women into contention. It’s an extremely tough call, which is why the pattern of the test event, and not just the result, will offer much insight.
Although the race is not part of the World Triathlon Series, the competition will be fierce, and the Japanese Federation has stumped up equivalent prize money. On the women’s side, the top 18 ranked World Series triathletes are all on the start-list including the USA’s Zafares, Taylor Spivey and Summer Rappaport, who have duked it out all season with Britain to be the world’s leading nation. The US triathletes have the additional incentive of knowing a top three finish, and being one of the top two Americans, will ensure qualification.
The other name to leap off the start list is of 2016 and 2017 world champion Duffy. The Bermudan hasn’t raced through injury since July last year, having dominated the sport in the wake of Gwen Jorgensen’s switch to marathon running after the Rio Olympics. It’s more likely that Duffy is on a reconnaissance mission than being fit enough to challenge. Nicola Spirig, the 2012 champion and 2016 silver medallists, who gave birth to her third child in April, is also an omission. Spirig has long played to her own tune when it comes to selecting racing, and wasn’t present at the 2015 test event either before providing a real test for the champion-elect Jorgensen in Brazil. She has stated she plans to return for a fifth Olympics.
On the men’s side, the top four from the World Series are all absent. France’s Vincent Luis, the World Series leader, and Spain’s Mario Mola, the reigning world champion, have opted out, as have Mola’s compatriots Javier Gomez and Fernando Alarza. Luis and Mola’s coach, Joel Filliol, confirmed it’s to concentrate on the WTS Grand Final in Lausanne a fortnight after the test event, where Luis only needs to finish fifth to claim his first world title.
It leaves Australian Jake Birtwhistle as the highest ranked triathlete, ahead of Belgian Marten van Riel and South Africa’s Olympic bronze medallist Henri Schoeman. Both Brownlee, who goes into the race in his best form in almost three years having won last time out in Edmonton, and Yee, will fancy their chances of a morale-boosting victory.
The number of paratri classes that will be contested has risen from six to eight for Tokyo, but not everyone has benefitted from the changes, including Britain’s only Paralympic tri champion Andy Lewis, whose PTS2 category has been cut.
The men’s and women’s wheelchair and visually impaired divisions are both included, as are both PTS5 classes, where Lauren Steadman, the current world champion and a familiar face from last year’s Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC, is handily placed to qualify.
Along with Claire Cashmore and George Peasgood (also PTS5), Jade Jones-Hall (wheelchair) and Dave Ellis (visually impaired), Steadman has an opportunity to confirm selection for the Paralympics because of an earlier podium in June in Montreal. They would all again need a top three finish, but because only one paratriathlete per category is guaranteed a slot at this stage it will be a straight shootout between Cashmore and Steadman. Alison Peasgood (visually impaired) could also have cemented her spot, but will miss the event as she recovers from pericarditis, an inflammation of the protective heart lining.
Having narrowly missed out for a place at Rio, the much-anticipated mixed relay also makes its bow in Tokyo 2020, featuring two men and two women teams racing over a 300m swim, 7.4km cycle and 2km run. Britain is assured of a starting berth and triathletes will be picked from those racing in the individual competition. Unlike the test event that offers just one full day’s grace between the women’s race and the relay, the Olympics will allow four days of recovery, but while Britain look to have a formidable quartet, world champions France and Commonwealth winner Australia have performed far better in recent seasons.