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Olympic Triathlon History: The story so far

Tokyo 2020 will represent the sixth edition of triathlon at the Olympic Games. We take a look back at what has happened since that debut in Sydney

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The history of triathlon in the Olympic Games may be relatively short since its introduction in 2000, but already it has provided some incredible moments.

The sport’s maiden appearance at the Games came after years of exponential growth in popularity across the world, following the first recorded in triathlon in San Diego, USA back in 1974. 

By 1988, the sport had attracted the interest of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which kickstarted the debate over including triathlon in the Olympic Games Programme. 

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) was formed the following year, and after the success of the first World Triathlon Championships in Avignon, the sport was voted into the Olympic Games at an IOC Congress in 1994. 

Triathlon’s debut at the Olympics eventually came in Sydney in 2000, featuring a draft-legal format which has been used at the Games ever since. 

As they are today, the men’s and women’s events were raced over what is now known as Olympic distance, composed of a 1.5km swim, 40km bike and a 10km run. 

There was a 100-athlete quota for the 2000 event (55 men, 45 women), which was balanced for the 2004 Games, before being increased to 55 men and 55 women for Beijing 2008. 

There have been nine different gold-medalists across the five Games where triathlon has been contested, with Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee the only athlete to retain a title, at Rio in 2016. 

Partially thanks to Alistair’s efforts, Great Britain have won the joint most Olympic triathlon medals with five, a figure matched by Australia and Switzerland

The Swiss have claimed golds through Brigitte McMahon and Nicola Spirig in the women’s event, while Australia’s Emma Snowsill claimed victory at Beijing in 2008. 


Olympic Triathlon 2016 Results

Fort Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro played host to the most recent Olympic triathlon, which proved to be a fruitful endeavor for Great Britain, who grabbed three medals across the two races in Brazil. 

Men’s Race 

Alistair Brownlee successfully defended the title he had claimed at London 2012 with a sensational performance which saw him outrun brother Jonny to cross the line six seconds clear

The victory saw Alistair become the first athlete to retain an Olympic triathlon title, while younger sibling Jonny’s silver medal followed a bronze in 2012. 

Henri Schoeman edged out compatriot Richard Murray to clinch bronze and become the first South African to win an Olympic triathlon medal. 

Alistair Brownlee & Jonathan Brownlee at Rio 2016

Women’s Race 

Gwen Jorgensen won the USA’s first ever Olympic triathlon gold with victory in Brazil, doubling the country’s all-time medal haul in the event following Susan Williams’ bronze in 2004. 

Jorgensen dropped Spirig (2012 champion in London) on the run to finish 40 seconds clear. 

VIcky Holland clinched bronze ahead of fellow Great Britain athlete Non Stanford, with Chile’s Bárbara Riveros coming home in fifth. 

Olympic Triathlon 2012 Results

The 2012 Olympics in London threw up two memorable races, with Spirig edging out Sweden’s Lisa Nordén to a photo finish in the women’s event.

Men’s Race 

Alistair Brownlee claimed his first Olympic triathlon gold in Hyde Park after dropping Spaniard Javier Gómez with around 3km of the run to go.

Gómez took silver ahead of Jonny Brownlee in third, who was handed a 15 second penalty for an infringement during the first transition.

In worrying scenes, the bronze-medal winner collapsed almost immediately after finishing the race, which was later revealed to be as a result of heat stroke.

The Brownlees became the only British siblings to date to win medals in the same individual Olympic event.

London 2012 - Alistair Brownlee / Jonathan Brownlee / Javier Gomez

Women’s Race

The women’s event produced an enthralling race which saw a five-way sprint finish between Spirig, Nordén, Erin Densham, Sarah Groff and Helen Jenkins.

A 22-woman strong group splintered following the conclusion of the bike leg, with the five athletes heading into the final laps of the run course in close proximity.

After a sensational finish, Spirig was adjudged to have beaten Nordén to gold by just 15cm, while Australia’s Densham beat USA’s Groff to the final spot on the podium.

Nicola Spirig Lisa Norden 2012 Olympic Triathlon London
Nicola Spirig pips Lisa Norden to win Olympic triathlon gold at London in 2012.

Olympic Triathlon 2008 Results

The 2008 races in China both made history, as Bevan Docherty and Simon Whitfield became the first athletes to secure multiple Olympic triathlon medals.

Men’s Race 

Germany’s Jan Frodeno came out on top of an exciting sprint finish at the Triathlon Venue at the Ming Tomb Reservoir in Shisanling.

Heading into the event Frodeno – now a household name of triathlon – was a relatively unknown quantity on the international stage, but he announced himself to the world with an incredible display.

Up against the likes of Canada’s Whitfield – who won Olympic gold in 2000 – and 2008 World Champion Gómez, Frodeno produced a power-packed finish to edge ahead over the closing metres and claim a shock win.

Beijing 2008 Olympic Games / Jan Frodeno

Women’s Race

Having become the first female triathlete to win three world titles, Snowsill was a strong favourite heading into the 2008 Olympics.

And the Australian lived up to that billing in China, fending off an athlete who had dominated international draft-legal racing in the preceding years in Portugal’s Vanessa Fernandes. 

After a large contingent led the field out of the second transition, Snowsill produced what proved to be unmatchable pace on the run to claim gold ahead of Fernandes and compatriot Emma Moffatt. 

2008 Beijing Olympic Games / Olympic triathlon history

Olympic Triathlon 2004 Results

The second-ever Olympic triathlon at the Vouliagmeni Olympic Centre in Athens produced six different medalists to the two races four years prior. 

Men’s Race 

New Zealand picked up a one-two in the men’s event thanks to stellar performances from Hamish Carter and Bevan Docherty.  

Carter claimed gold as he finished seven seconds clear of Docherty, with Switzerland’s Sven Riederer coming home in third.  

Marc Jenkins may have finished last in Greece, but the British athlete produced an iconic Olympic moment as he ran the final two kilometres of the second leg carrying his broken bike on his shoulders. 

2004 Athens Olympic Games / Olympic triathlon history

Women’s Race 

Australia’s Loretta Harrop led for much of the race, and looked set for victory as she entered the closing stages of the run at the front of the field.  

But Austria’s Kate Allen, who exited the water in 44th place, had battled her way into contention after a strong bike leg saw her climb to 28th.  

It was her scintillating final leg which earned her the gold, as she removed a gap of almost three minutes to Harrop before breezing past and finishing seven seconds clear. 

2004 Athens Olympic Games

Olympic Triathlon 2000 Results

Triathlon endeared itself to Olympic fans on its debut at the competition in Sydney, as both races provided exciting finishes. 

Men’s Race 

A late burst from Whitfield saw him take gold as he overhauled Germany’s Stephan Vuckovic on the closing stages of the run.  

Whitfield had crashed on the bike leg, but showed remarkable resilience to recover and work his way back to the front of the field.  

The Canadian wrote his name into Olympic triathlon folklore as he crossed the line first in front of the Sydney Opera House, 13 seconds ahead of Vuckovic and over 20 seconds clear of Czech Republic’s Jan Řehula.

2000 Sydney Olympic Games / Olympic triathlon history

Women’s Race 

The day prior to the men’s race, McMahon produced a similarly resurgent run to Whitfield to become the first ever Olympic triathlon gold medalist.

It was the first event on the first day of the Games, with the backdrop of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge providing the ideal way to spectacularly introduce Sydney to a global audience. 

An intense finale saw the Swiss athlete run shoulder-to-shoulder with Australian Michellie Jones, eventually denying her rival a famous victory on home soil.  

McMahon crossed the line just two seconds clear in an incredible finish, with Magali Messmer earning Switzerland another place on the inaugural podium as she came home in third. 

Next instalment: Olympic Triathlon in 2021

Tokyo 2020 gets under way in July just one year late following the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can get all the details on when the races take place – and how you can watch on TV – in our full event guide.

Olly Green
Written by
Olly Green
Olly is is been the content lead for RUN247, is a regular contributor to TRI247 and keeps an eye out for content that appeals to both audiences including interviews with pro Heather Jackson.
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