Tokyo Olympics: Triathlon Preview
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
For the first time since Beijing 2008, both the Men’s and Women’s Triathlon race at the Olympics are wide open and unpredictable. Ali Brownlee was the overwhelming favourite in 2012 and 2016 for the men, and Spirig and Jorgensen both had the upper hand heading into London and Rio respectively. In Tokyo however, both races feature at least 10 athletes who have a genuine claim on a medal. Below is our preview of both races and our predictions on how it they will play out.
Women’s Race: Tuesday 27th July, 6:30AM JST
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Taylor-Brown, Learmonth
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Zaferes, Duffy
⭐⭐⭐ Holland, Spirig
⭐⭐ Knibb, Rappaport, Kingma,
⭐ Klamer, Beaugrand
The Women’s event for the Tokyo Olympics promises to be a blockbuster race. Whether a small group breaks away after the Swim or it all stays together for a 10km Run race off the Bike, a large number of athletes will be backing themselves to take home a medal.
After an arduous and ultimately heartbreaking selection process for the Olympics which saw world number 4 Taylor Spivey miss out on a spot, all three Americans selected have a genuine claim on the Gold medal. Despite a slow start to the 2021 season, former World Champion Katie Zaferes has often proven that she is a big-day performer – if you have any doubts see her performance to claim the 2019 World Championship in Lausanne just weeks after a major bike crash for reference. Both Taylor Knibb and Summer Rappaport will try to make the race dynamics play in their favour. As strong swimmers they are likely to race from the front and both athletes have already performed well in Japan recently.
Making the women’s British Olympics Triathlon team might arguably be tougher than winning a medal itself. With two World Champions in their ranks, Georgia Taylor-Brown & Vicky Holland, and WTS star Jess Learmonth, the British team also had to leave at home former World Champion Non Stanford, and 2021 breakthrough athletes Beth Potter & Sophie Coldwell. By winning* the Tokyo Test Event Georgia and Jess have already proven they can race in the heat, Vicky Holland on the other hand already won a Bronze medal in similar conditions in Rio and will be looking to upgrade to Silver or Gold.
Two more big names to look out for are Flora Duffy and Nicola Spirig. Flora Duffy has struggled with multiple injuries since winning her last World Title but every time she’s been on the start line, she’s been at or near the front of the race. Her strength in all three disciplines means she’ll be ready to pounce regardless of how the race dynamics play out. Mother of three and owner of a gold and silver medal already, Nicola Spirig is a force of nature who has proven for the past 15 years that she’s mastered the art of peaking for big races. Her confidence will be high after winning her final tune-up race, and she is sure to strike fear into the hearts of her competitors in Tokyo as they she’ll be ready to battle all the way to the line! (see her Olympic Gold Medal here for proof).
Finally, the name that has been all over the headlines since the start of the 2021 season thanks to her stunning WTCS performances, Maya Kingma will line up in Tokyo with the newfound confidence of a WTCS series leader. After finishing third in Yokohama, Maya Kingma ran away with a surprise win in Leeds to cement her place amongst the favourites in Tokyo. Has she peaked too early though? Only time will tell.
Above and beyond the pre-race favourites mentioned above, several other athletes will be lining up with strong medal potential. Former Hamburg WTS winner Cassandre Beaugrand has the potential to win from multiple different race scenarios, however her form tends to be very hot and cold. Based on previous WTS performances, she will either prove a strong contender for the win or finish outside the Top 20 without weighing on the race whatsoever. Finally, another former WTS winner who’s struggled to show form this year but who shouldn’t be counted out for the big day is Rachel Klamer from Holland. Klamer has been a consistent Top-5 performer over past seasons and will be gunning for the podium in Tokyo.
Predictions Olympic races are notoriously tough to predict, very few athletes turn up on their best form, others are hiding an injury, and some are over-trained. Despite this, the depth of strong Swim-Bikers in the woman’s field would suggest a breakaway of 4-5 athletes will get away early and head into T2 with a small lead. Look for Learmonth, Taylor-Brown and Duffy to take the lead on this, with Kingma and possibly Taylor Knibb in toe. If she has a good swim Cassandre Beaugrand might make this group, but don’t be looking for her to take any turns on the front, she will play the tactical game and save herself for the run. The chase group will be led by Spirig and Zaferes, with Vicky Holland and several other strong runners hoping to head into T2 as close to the leaders as possible. Off the bike and onto the run one of two scenarios will play out, either they will have a big enough lead for Learmonth, Taylor-Brown and Duffy to run away with the medals, or the chase group will be close enough to pick up the scraps and take home some metal.
Our prediction: Georgia-Taylor Brown will take the Gold, Jessica Learmonth will hold on for Silver and Katie Zaferes will return to form by running her way up to the Bronze medal position.
Men’s Race: Monday 26th July, 6:30AM JST
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Luis, Yee
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Blumenfelt, Brownlee, Mola, Geens
⭐⭐⭐ Iden, Bergere, Van Riel, Gomez
⭐⭐ Wilde, Birtwhistle, Schoeman
⭐ Mislawchuk, Pearson, Studer, Schomburg
[Editor's Note: Jelle Geens has been confirmed as a DNS since this article was first published due to a Covid-19 positive test result preventing him from travelling]
The Men’s race at Tokyo is probably the most unpredictable race in the history of Olympic Triathlon. In 2000 you had Simon Lessing who was favoured for the win, in 2004 the two kiwis Carter and Docherty were favourites, in 2008 it was Javier Gomez and in both 2012 and 2016 it was Ali Brownlee. For Tokyo 2020 we can cite a list of 10 to 15 names who all have genuine reason to believe that they can be Olympic champion in Japan.
Vincent Luis is the two-time reigning world champion, undefeated in 2020 and winner of the SuperLeague series in handsome fashion. Luis is possibly the most well-rounded triathlete on the start list, able to lead the swim, bike with the best and throw down a sub 30-minute 10km when needed. Luis almost quit Triathlon in 2016 after the disappointment in Rio, but he will be raring to go in Tokyo and prepared to pounce regardless of the race dynamics.
Talking of dynamics, the dynamic Norwegian duo of Kristian Blumenfelt and Gustav Iden will be looking to repeat what Docherty and Carter did in 2004 by taking home Gold and Silver to the same country. Whilst Iden has several podiums, but no WTCS wins to his name, his 70.3 World Title and win at Challenge Daytona last December proved that he’s got the mental strength to perform on the big day. Kristian on the other hand has won the 2019 Grand Final in Lausanne and stormed to victory in Yokohama already this year. Did he peak to early? Only time will tell, but if his Strava is anything to go by then I’d say he’s ready and raring to go.
Spanish duo Javier Gomez and Mario Mola will be expected to perform well in the Japanese heat. Gomez has a 4th place and a silver medal already to his name at the Olympics, he will be looking to trade up for a Gold in Tokyo and has prepared well in Cozumel, Mexico. Three-time world champion Mario Mola can sometimes be subject to poor performance if his swim isn’t up to scratch on the day, but world-beating coach Joel Filliol will ensure Mario’s got an armoury of weapons ready to unleash should he need to adapt to different race situations on the day.
Strong performances in 2019 and 2020 from Frenchman, Leo Bergère and Belgian, Jelle Geens have cemented their credentials as medal contenders. Geens is one of the fastest runners in Triathlon and will certainly work hard on the bike to bring the race back together if he is behind after the Swim. Bergère on the other had has improved enough in the Swim to catch the back of the lead pack out of the water. Watch out for him working hard on the bike leg if he makes the breakaway, a big gap into T2 will favour his chances of nabbing a medal. Geens’ fellow Belgian & training partner, Marten Van Riel finished 6th in Rio and is possibly the strongest cyclist in the field. Van Riel recently got his first WTCS podium in Leeds and will riding a wave of confidence heading into Tokyo.
We can’t finish talking about the favourites without mentioning the two Englishmen heading to Tokyo. Recent WTCS Leeds winner Alex Yee struck fear into the heart of his opponents with a blistering run to dominate the field and confirm his status as one of the medal favourites in Tokyo. If a big pack comes into T2 together everyone will be looking at Yee as they head out onto the run, if he’s on form not many will be able to beat him. Finally, two-time Olympic medallist Jonny Brownlee will be looking to complete his collection with a Gold in Toyko. Jonny has struggled to find form these past two seasons following his Bronze in London and Silver in Rio, but with a pedigree like his and the family name Brownlee you can count on him to show up as fit as ever and ready to race.
The number of outsiders in the Men’s race probably outnumbers the number of favourites, whether it be breakthrough athletes from this season, past medallists or proven WTCS performers who’ve struggled to prove form, they’ll all be hoping for a medal performance.
Test event winner Tyler Mislawchuk and Rio Bronze medallist Henri Schoeman are slight unknown prospects heading into Toyko. Tyler has only raced in North America this season and Henri has struggled to train due to COVID restrictions in South Africa. These two pocket rockets will be confident of performing in the heat and humidity, and if they play their cards right could end up on the podium.
Breakout athletes of the season Morgan Pearson and Max Studer will be hoping they didn’t peak to soon this year. With two WTCS podiums and a European Championship title to their names respectively, both athletes will toe the line in Tokyo with full confidence in their ability to compete with the best.
Three more athletes to consider are Jake Birtwhistle, Hayden Wilde and of course Jonas Schomburg. With multiple WTS wins to his name, Birtwhistle can beat the best on his day, his tendency for hot and cold performances on the swim though are what downgrade him to an outsider rather than a favourite. If the race comes into the final mile and he’s in a group of 4-5 athletes he’ll be the favourite, no one can out-kick him and he’s proven that on numerous occasions. German athlete Jonas Schomburg has been knocking on the door of some huge performances these past 18 months. Always with the front group out of the water and first out of T2 onto the Run, Schomburg has faded to top-5 or top-10 performances on most occasions. If his Run has progressed enough heading into Tokyo he will undoubtably be looking at putting his name on one of the medals. Finally, Kiwi athlete Hayden Wilde must be considered for a medal as well. Wilde has been a consistent Top-5 performer since his first year on the WTS circuit, however the long period of time without top-level racing he spent in New-Zealand since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic makes him a bit of an unknown factor.
Ultimately, choosing a favourite for this race is almost impossible. Looking at the start list again we can pick at least another 5 to 10 athletes who will feel hard done by for being left off this list (Nieschlag, Bicsak, Pereira, Alarza and Coninx to name just a few). All triathlon fans can hope for is an exciting race and a worthy winner on the day.
Brownlee and Luis will lead the impetus for a breakaway after the swim with Schoeman, Salvisberg, a Polyanskiy brother, Gomez and Van Riel in toe. The Norwegians will work with the Americans to try and bring the Bike groups back together but will struggle. Yee, Mola and Geens will get a free ride since they have a teammate at the front of the race, the two main groups will come back together eventually and Schomburg will launch a counterattack to take a 20s lead into T2. The main group will quickly distil itself to the core favourites on the run, with Schomburg hanging on for dear life after being caught just 1km into the footrace. Rapidly several athletes will succumb to the heat as they struggle to match the pace set by Blumenfelt, only the two Brits, Geens, Luis, Gomez and Mola will remain heading into the final 5km.
From this point it’s anyone’s game, take your pick and you’ve got three worthy medallists. The gut tells you Yee should take the win from Geens and Luis based on pure run speed, but the heart hopes that Brownlee could sneak off the front and outsprint Blumenfelt with Gomez rounding out the podium.