Not only is triathlon one of the toughest Olympic disciplines physically , but the mental pressure has also always been particularly acute, with athletes afforded just one shot at glory.
Unlike swimmers, runners or cyclists, who might be given the opportunity to win a number of medals over different distances or strokes, triathletes have, until now, been on a one-off-deal with the Olympic programme featuring a men’s and a women’s race only. But with the addition of the mixed team relay for the Tokyo 2020 Games that has changed and the athletes are delighted.
I think it’s fantastic that men and women get to race together, and it’s great for spectators because it’s fast and furious. Alistair Brownlee - Alistair Brownlee
“It’s really exciting – and of course, personally speaking, one of the great things is that it’s another shot at a gold medal during a Games,” Alistair Brownlee, the men’s individual Olympic champion at London 2012 and Rio 2016, said. “You only had one chance in the past, so if you lost, that was it. I’d absolutely love to get two gold medals for Great Britain.”
Mixed relays sees teams of two men and two women compete over a short-course triathlon (300m swim, 8km bike, 2km run) before tagging a teammate to take over. Taking around an hour-and-a-half to complete, athletes enjoy its rapid and unpredictable format, while crowds relish the fast-moving action and frequent overtaking.
Brownlee is a big cheerleader for the event more generally. He won the 2014 International Triathlon Union (ITU) Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships in Hamburg, and that same year bagged the mixed team gold medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, in a quartet featuring his brother Jonathan Brownlee, Vicky Holland and Jodie Stimpson.
“We won the worlds as Team GB, and the Commonwealth Games as Team England, and they were both great experiences. I think it’s fantastic that men and women get to race together, and it’s great for spectators because it’s fast and furious. There’s a lot going on during a race, so it’s good for triathlon generally,” he said.
“Sport is about competing and doing as well as you can from your own point of view, but you’ve also got to remember that what makes the sport work is the people who watch it,” said Brownlee. “If this event helps people get more out of it, and I think it will because it’s fast, furious and exciting, that’s important. It’s part and parcel of sport and hopefully people will want to watch this.”
The evidence is encouraging as 250,000 spectators lined the streets of Hamburg to watch 2016 Mixed Team Relay World Championships live.
Double Olympic champion Brownlee is not too concerned either that the addition of the event will throw up too many extra challenges, training-wise. “I don’t think I’d approach training differently if I was competing in two events at an Olympics rather than one, but we will have to see,” he said. “It’s hard to know, because although we’ve done it a few times at world championships, it’s not been an event that we’ve focused on for the Olympics yet.
“So it’s going to be a learning curve and it may change a few things, dynamically. We’ll learn it over the next few years. I will be interested to see how they schedule the two events, how they are positioned next to each other.”
We’ve been pushing for the mixed relays to be included in the programme for quite a long time, as it is an event that gives the sport something very important – a sense of team building. Marisol Casado President of the ITU - Marisol Casado President of the ITU
The sense of teamwork and gender equality that the mixed relay promotes have been principal factors behind the ITU’s dogged promotion of the event.
“We’ve been pushing for the mixed relays to be included in the programme for quite a long time, as it is an event that gives the sport something very important – a sense of team building. But most important, it is an event that demonstrates that women and men can compete together but both are equally important to the success of the team,” said Marisol Casado, president of the ITU.
It has certainly all got a major thumbs-up from one of the sport’s biggest stars. “I think it’s really interesting and exciting. They’re trying to keep things fresh and mix things up, to take sport to new audiences – stuff that is spectator focused,” Brownlee said.