The sport of triathlon, like all sports, is always changing. For any sport or organization to grow, it must adapt to the different dynamics it faces over time. The point after attempt in football is a good example. In the NFL it has become almost automatic, so they changed the rules so kickers would kick from the 15 yard line for an extra point versus the 3 yard line. It was an attempt to make the extra point kick not just a give me point. It was a change of rules to add value to the play of the extra point. There are plenty of arguments on what impact it has had and will have, but time will tell.
Triathlon faces its own challenges as it has grown in popularity. To help the growth of the sport, Triathlon worked to get it into the Olympics. Some steps they took were to make it a more fan friendly and exciting event. Thus, the draft legal, multi loop course was created. They developed and created a world championship and this helped lead triathlon to being added as an Olympic event in 2000.
There are (number) of challenges that I currently see with our sport. The first is there is only one event for triathlon in the Olympics that works for one skill set of athletes, those who are great in the draft legal format. There is no spot for the athletes who excel in the non-drafting format or for the long course format. Additionally, the Olympic format is 2 hours long and does not translate as well to a T.V. Audience. Break always of a few athletes on the bike rarely work, so athletes sit in and wait till the run. It does not capitalize on the excitement that triathlons can be. Additionally, there is a world championship every year that is decided on a points system rather than a final race like swimming or track and field do. You can a world Champion who finishes 3rd in the final and win the world Championship. Perhaps it is my swimming background, but I look at world championships as you have to qualify and then win the event to be a World Champion, the same requirement for being an Olympic champion. Two of these issues have been addressed. Triathlon has added the mixed relay and shortened the draft legal race to a sprint distance. The reason the mixed relay was a push for was because the Olympic Committee said they could not add more athletes. In the Olympic Games, the have a cap on the number of athletes, so if you add an event such as a non-draft race, that adds athletes. If you add an event that pulls from the current athletes competing, an event is added, but no additional athletes.
One of my biggest critiques of the current World Championship format is many of finals do not have as deepest of fields as they should. Athletes are broken down and tired from traveling all over the world to race and if they have no chance for a top 10, 15, or 20 finish due to points, there is no monetary gain, they may not go to the race. They may not have the points because they have been injured and missed some races. The athlete maybe a top 10 or 15 athlete, but they may not go. This happened at the 2015 World Championships held in Chicago in the women’s field. Many women decided not to race and as a result, the roll down for the start list went further and further and further resulting is a diluted field and not the top field you would hope for in a World Championship.
Here are four areas of I feel could continue to improve and grow the popularity of our sport.
First change I would make is to have the World Championship every 2 years, which is what Track and Field and swimming do. The World Championship would be held the year before and after the Olympics. The year before would most likely be used for most countries as their qualifying for the Olympics. The World Championship would be a winner takes all. Best athlete or best racer on the day will be the world champion. This would create a little more buzz around the World Championships. If an athlete wants to be a World Champion, then they have to win on the day. Not finish second or third. Some may argue the Tour de France winner does not cross the finish line first in Paris. This is true, but the Tour de France is a race that takes place over 3 weeks. Triathlon is a single day race.
The second step would be to change the draft legal format of racing from to super sprint draft legal distance you would do 2 times through. What does that mean? Each athlete would swim, bike run, swim bike run. Distances would be 375 meter swim, 10 K bike, and 2.5 K run… then repeat. This format does limit the number of athletes who compete in the field at one time, but I will address that a little later. This format allows the event to be completed in swimming pool or open water. Even temporary pools have been used as it was done as part of interbike a few years back. As I mentioned this format does limit the number of athletes which creates a problem on a world championship level. With some many qualify athletes, how do you qualify for the championship. To address this, the race would be competed in a prelim final format. Day one athletes would compete in the prelims and only one time through the course with the top athletes moving onto the final. If you have 5 heats of 12 athletes, your start list would be 60 athletes. Top 2 from every heat along with the next 2 fastest would all make the final. This format is super exciting, takes less than 1 hour and is friendlier to a T.V. audience. It would also allow for more breakaways, different strategies (not only in the finals, but also the prelims) and that in turn would create an exciting event. Organizers would then be able to run the event almost anywhere. They would not be limited to open bodies of water (although open water would be preferred). It can be done in a parking lot with portable pools, smaller bodies of water, or even in local parks that have pools, either 25 meter/yard or 50 meter pools.
The third step would be to create have World Championship races in both the Olympic non draft and ITU long course distance events. These distances, along with the draft legal format mentioned above would create events that take completely different skill sets, very similar to swimming and track and field having different events that require different skill sets. The fields for these races would be smaller. Around 35 athletes I believe would be a good number. The qualifying for the World Championship would be something that needs to be worked out, but I think some sort of regional championships could be a possibility. Many may ask why the ITU long course distance versus the Iron or Half Iron distances. The Iron distance in reality is too long and would never make it into the Olympics. The ITU long distance in itself maybe a stretch. Then why not the half distance? The ITU long course distance is a more balanced triathlon. What do I mean by a more balanced triathlon? The swim is more of a factor. In the Half Iron distance, the swim is 1.2 miles or 1900 meters. In the Olympic it is .92 miles or 1500 meters. The difference is only 400 meters. Whereas the bike jumps from 24.8 miles to 56 miles and the run from 6.2 miles to 13.1 miles. This is more than doubling the distance from the Olympic distance to half iron distance. In the ITU long course distance, the increase of distance is almost triple, the swim is 4000 meters (2.5 miles), bike is 120K (74.4 miles), and the run is 30K(18.6 miles).
The fourth and final step would be having all three disciplines in one world championship, in the same week. The prelims of the Draft legal could be done on a Friday or earlier in the week. Olympic distance non draft race could be contested on a Saturday. The ITU long course would be done on a Sunday with the finals of the draft legal race being held while the ITU long course is out on the bike/run. One could also do the finals of the ITU long course on Sunday with the super sprint final on Saturday as well with the Olympic non-draft on Sunday. Another option is to move everything up one day and have a mixed relay on Sunday to conclude the championship. Countries could pull from any of their athletes who have competed. Depending on when the week starts, the men’s and women’s races could be contended on different days, very similar to how the 70.3 World Championships will be contested this year.
The world championship contended in this way would get all of the top triathletes in one place at one time. The bigger the names at a single event the more exposure to it, as well as for our sport, and the more exposure, the more it grows. Additionally, having these world championships, with the additional exposure potentially could add to the inclusion of different disciplines being included in the Olympics. A sport with a large following all around the world would be hard to keep out of the Olympics.