Could Flora Duffy make history for Bermuda?
Could Flora Duffy make history for Bermuda?

Olympic Triathlon: Tokyo 2020 preview, contenders and predictions

John Levison from looks ahead to the men's, women's and mixed relay triathlons at Tokyo 2020.

Triathlon is back at the Olympic Games, and it will have a new addition plus one very notable absentee for British audiences.

Double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee lost the battle against his body - as well as youngster Alex Yee - in his attempts to make it a treble in Tokyo. The Brownlee name continues though courtesy of younger brother Jonathan - he earned bronze in London and silver in Rio. That final step to the top of the podium would be a fairytale one for the family legacy, one which is already embedded into the development of the swim-bike-run sport in the UK.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Alistair limping away from Roundhay Park last month en route to more ankle surgery means reduced prospects in Japan. All three British women are potential medallists, while the 23-year-old Yee may well be the future of the sport globally. That 12-month delay has played right into his hands.

Men’s Olympic Triathlon - Sunday July 25, 2230 BST

Good luck picking a winner from this one. Vincent Luis (FRA) was world champion in 2019 and 2020 and dominated the sport last year. Some 12 months on and sixth place from his only race start in 2021 raises questions though. At 32, this is prime time for Luis - he is strong across all disciplines and, approaching his third Olympics, he has the experience too.

Spain’s Mario Mola may not have the name recognition of his legendary compatriot Javier Gomez, but with three world titles of his own, exceptional run speed and a wafer-thin body primed to race in the heat, he knows what it takes to win. Like Luis, his two races this year haven’t been headline-grabbing, but both men are coached by the exceptional Joel Filliol. They tend to get it right when it matters and current odds suggest many believe they will do so again.

If you like pain, then gaining bigger betting value from Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt is your best option. If he looks in agony, fear not, that’s his standard approach - one which has already brought him dominant victories this season in Yokohama and Lisbon. If the winner is decided by suffering, you can call the medal engraver now. The best cyclist in the sport, his expected small swim deficit doesn’t mean it is time to bin the betting slip just yet. Blummenfelt will give you value whatever his finishing position.

Alex Yee is being tipped for gold in Tokyo
Alex Yee

You can argue a case for the aforementioned Yee both from a patriotic and financial perspective. He crushed the field (Luis and Mola were notably absent) at World Triathlon Leeds, the final major event ahead of the Games, with a run performance few are capable of matching. His maturity there was a revelation, and if he can swim well and be part of the lead group starting the final 10km run, his rivals will be scared he might soon disappear up the road to gold.

And if a live outsider is your thing, then Tyler Mislawchuk (CAN) offers great value. He won the test event on this course two years ago, excels in the heat and has won twice in the last month. He is primed, ready and available at 33/1? Yes please!

Verdict: With limited racing over the past 18 months, plotting form lines is a challenge. There will be 15 men, quite realistically, starting the race with podium ambitions.

The pace will be ‘on’ from the start, the ‘swim-bikers’ aiming to gain ground on the ‘runners’ before the final leg. The depth of field is so strong, that’s a particularly tough challenge on a course which doesn’t offer much in terms of terrain posers. Add in the cycling power of Blummenfelt and his fellow Norwegians Gustav Iden and Casper Stornes, ready to close any deficits down, and a large group of 20-30 riders reaching the second transition together seems most likely.

Luis - just - would be my pick for gold, but I’d be looking for better value from the likes of Yee and Mislawchuk before parting with my own money.

Women’s Olympic Triathlon - Monday July 26, 2230 BST

Bermuda’s Flora Duffy might, with no exaggeration, bring her home nation to a standstill next week. The island has won one medal, a bronze, in its entire Olympic Games history. Despite the current odds, I rate her as the clear favourite to gain hero status in Tokyo.

Exceptional across all three disciplines, her recent fourth place in Leeds will provide the ultimate wake-up call. Don’t expect her to miss the front swim pack this time around, from where she has all the tools needed to compete however the race pans out. Now 33 years old and set for her fourth and final Olympic Games, she is the one to beat in my eyes.

If I told you that the most experienced and successful athlete in the race was also in perfect form with four wins already in 2021, you’d be interested in knowing more, right?

While the mainstream press will be focussed on ‘39-year-old mum of three in her fifth Olympics’ feel-good fluff, Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig will be in Tokyo for a lot more than role-model headlines and participation statistics. After gold in London and silver in Rio, Spirig is injury-free and ready to go. She follows her own path and performs on the big stage when it matters most. Currently available at 12/1 for the win and 7/2 for a podium - that’s the very definition of value.

All three British athletes - Georgia Taylor-Brown, Jessica Learmonth and Vicky Holland - are genuine medal contenders. If you care for superstition, Georgia will wear race #34, the most successful in Olympic triathlon history.

While most athletes have raced sparingly this season, we’ve yet to even see Taylor-Brown on a start line. That’s not the ideal preparation, but as an athlete who once missed more than two years of elite competition through injury, she has experience of making the necessary adjustments. It does leave a question mark however over her race sharpness.

Learmonth (along with Georgia) won the Tokyo Test Event two years ago… before promptly being disqualified for ‘finishing in a contrived tie situation’ after the friends finished arm-in-arm.

Putting aside the merits or not of World Triathlon Competition Rule 2.11.f, that at least ticks the horses-for-courses box. Learmonth took second recently at Leeds, while clearly not yet at full run fitness after an early-season injury. Those seven weeks since will prove valuable for the best swimmer in the race. She’s as tough as teak and very consistent - but will need her best performance ever to top the podium, something she is yet to do in the World Triathlon Championship Series.

While this will be a first Olympic experience for Georgia and Jess, for Holland - the Rio 2016 bronze medallist - this will be a third and final time on sport’s biggest stage. She’s another athlete light on racing (missing the Leeds event), but at her best the 2018 World Champion is one of the quickest runners in the sport. A great swim will be crucial to her race prospects.

I also have to mention Katie Zaferes (USA). World Champion in 2019, even her selection for the Games caused controversy given her poor form in 2021. She finished 22nd in Yokohama and 19th in Leeds - not what you would expect of an athlete currently rated an odds-on shot to make the podium.

The back story is the sudden death of her father in April, and Team USA’s decision to select her based on past race-winning results ahead of Taylor Spivey. I think she will far exceed those early season-disappointments, but turning that around to become Olympic champion? That’s a tough ask.

Verdict: Unlike the men’s race, I do expect there to be a significant split in the field and a far smaller group of athletes reaching T2 in close order to battle for the podium spots over the final 10km run.

Learmonth, Duffy and Zaferes - likely joined by Maya Kingma (NED) and the U.S. pairing of Taylor Knibb and Summer Rappaport - are likely to be part of a breakaway that will be taking no prisoners over the 40km bike leg. Given the hot and humid conditions, expect a few athletes to be dropped in the process, leaving the remaining favourites to battle it out for the podium.

I’m sticking with my pick of Duffy for the win, while Spirig at 12/1 is the best value on offer.

Mixed Relay Olympic Triathlon - Friday July 30, 2330 BST

The new Mixed Relay format is the event to watch at this Games if you are a casual sports fan and want to witness non-stop excitement for 80 minutes.

Four athletes (racing in female-male-female-male order) each complete a super-sprint triathlon of just 300m swim / 6.8km bike / 2km run, before tagging at the handover point. That quickly leads to some impressive dives into the open water at full-sprint pace, providing just one of the many moments that make this such an engaging and entertaining format.

There’s a very good reason that viewing figures for the Mixed Relay are good. Don’t miss it.

France has been the dominant nation in recent years - world champion for the last three years, European champion in two of those and winner of the Test Event on this course two years ago too. Fait accompli for gold then? Not so fast.

Jonny Brownlee
Jonny Brownlee

That Test Event victory in 2019 was via a photo-finish, with Dorian Coninx just getting the verdict over Yee. Two years is a long time in sport, and Yee has made the move from prospect to contender during that time, cemented by his career-best performance in Leeds. The French team will likely be stronger with the addition of Luis - but the Brits didn’t have Jonathan Brownlee racing either.

Luis and Yee will almost certainly be on the final leg for France and Great Britain respectively. The fastest sprinter in triathlon, versus the quickest runner in the sport over 2km. If it comes down to that, sit back and enjoy the next five-and-a-half minutes.

If Gold and Silver are to be decided between Les Bleus and Les Rosbifs then Team USA appear clear favourites for the final podium spot - chased perhaps by Australia.

Verdict: Based on history, consistency and ability to get a result, whatever the team line-up, then France has to be your choice. But not mine.

Looking objectively at the teams, I think that the British women in particular will be able to put the French on the back foot from the start. Learmonth would seemingly be the obvious choice for leg one, and with just 18 teams starting, she will split the race apart inside the first four minutes of action with her swim speed. If she can achieve that, the French will have to chase.

Jonathan Brownlee and, probably Taylor-Brown (the team will be selected after the individual races), will follow and not let off the pressure, both are very strong across all three sports.

Given the swim speed of Luis, ensuring that final handover to Yee takes place with a small advantage would be ideal, from which point a final run leg showdown would seem inevitable. It could be one of the most memorable moments of Tokyo 2021 - and my money is on the fast feet of Yee to bring home Gold for Britain.

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