Talk about costly celebrations.
British triathletes Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown had clinched a 1-2 finish Thursday morning in Tokyo in a test event preceding next year’s Olympics that, for some athletes, doubled as an Olympic qualification race. Overjoyed, they clasped hands and crossed the finish line together.
By the letter of the law, they can’t do that. Specifically, International Triathlon Union competition rule 2.11.f, which concludes with the fateful phrase, “athletes who finish in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made will be DSQ.”
“DSQ,” of course, stands for “disqualified,” and the British triathletes did indeed lose their places.
The finish could have lent itself to all sorts of conspiracy theories under different circumstances. With Learmonth and Taylor-Brown disqualified, teammate Vicky Holland moved up from fifth to third. Under British Triathlon’s selection criteria, a medalist in Thursday’s race would automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympics if that athlete had also finished on the podium in a race earlier this year in Yokohama or the 2016 Olympics. The USA’s Katie Zaferes, Summer Rappaport and Taylor Spivey swept the Yokohama race without linking hands, but Holland took bronze in 2016, making her the only British athlete eligible to qualify directly for the 2020 Games on Thursday.
However, British Triathlon ruled before the race that it would not count for Olympic qualification because organizers shortened the running phase from 10 kilometers to 5km because of excessive heat. Organizers almost had to cut the swimming phase in half to 750 meters because the water temperature was 30.3 degrees Celsius (86.5 Fahrenheit), barely under the ITU’s limit of 30.9 (87.6) degrees.
British Triathlon’s selection document reads: “The above automatic nominations will not apply if, in the opinion of the Panel, the results of either race (and in the case of returning Rio medallists, the Test Event only) are/is significantly impacted by: i. a large-scale racing incident (such as a crash); OR ii. environmental conditions/exceptional circumstances which result in substantial alteration to the race format.”
The “Test Event” in question is Thursday’s race in Tokyo, and it also had a crash that took out Zaferes, the top-ranked triathlete in the world who was very much in contention until the accident. The crash may not have been deemed sufficient for British Triathlon to disregard the results, but the “substantial alteration” was.
So in the end, the chain of events didn’t affect qualification for the British team, though the unfortunate 1-2 finishers missed out on prize money. Taylor-Brown was gracious about the incident on Twitter, saying, “we promise not to do that again.” Many British triathlon fans on Twitter were less polite.
Nor did the reshuffling affect the U.S. qualification — Rappaport crossed the finish line seventh and was bumped up to fifth. Under USA Triathlon criteria, if no U.S. athlete is on the podium, the highest-placed finisher in the top eight will qualify, so Rappaport qualified with or without the disqualification, and Spivey’s bump from 10th to eighth was irrelevant.
Both British Triathlon and USA Triathlon will have selection dilemmas in the future. The British team will be selected entirely by the federation’s discretion out of a stacked roster in which four women are in the top seven of the ITU’s Olympic qualification rankings: Taylor-Brown third, Holland fourth, Learmonth fifth and Non Stanford seventh.
The other three in the top seven are American: Zaferes first, Spivey second and Rappaport sixth. One more U.S. triathlete can claim an automatic qualifying spot by finishing on the podium in another race next spring in Yokohama.
The USA, like Britain, is virtually assured of earning three spots in the 2020 Olympics.
When all the decisions were finalized, the winner was Bermuda’s Flora Duffy, who was competing in her first race after missing a year with a foot injury.
Learmonth finished the swim phase in first, with Zaferes and Rappaport in pursuit. The bike phase settled into a lead pack of roughly 10 riders until Zaferes collided with teammate Kirsten Kasper. Kasper was able to resume the race and rejoined a chase pack, but Zaferes withdrew. The lead group was eventually whittled to six, including Spivey, Duffy, Italy’s Alice Betto, Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes and the British duo that would later cross the finish line together.
Duffy and Betto crossed the finish line behind the disqualified duo to claim first and second, while Holland made up a gap of nearly two minutes to pass Lopes and Spivey. Rappaport rode in the same chase pack as Holland and passed Spivey as well.
Olympic berths are also on the line Friday morning in Tokyo (Thursday evening in the USA) in the men’s race.
Heat isn’t unusual for Tokyo in the summer. Takeo Hirata, a professor of sports sciences working with the 2020 Olympic organizers, recently shared some heat-mitigating ideas in The Japan Times, including specially coated road surfaces.
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