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More questions than answers as Britain’s Olympic triathlon puzzle heads for Cagliari conclusion

WTCS Yokohama may created more questions than answers for British Triathlon selectors with the countdown to Paris 2024 selection on

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Seven days ago I wrote a pre-WTCS Yokohama feature looking primarily at the Olympic Games triathlon qualification prospects for Great Britain’s Jonny Brownlee, with the deadline for Paris 2024 selection rapidly approaching.

With the racing from Yamashita Park now in the books, how are things looking now for Brownlee? And indeed for several other Olympic medallists who raced?

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‘Tough day’ in Japan for Brownlee

Can Jonny Brownlee be Big in Japan this weekend? If he wants to go to Paris, he might need to be.

They were my closing words last week. It’s fair to say that finishing in 38th position and almost four minutes in arrears – having started the 10km run in the large leading group off the bike – was really not the hoped for outcome for anyone. Few would have had Brownlee as a contender for victory in Japan, but it will be that run split time loss that’s the concern and continued frustration for the triple Olympic medallist.

Jonny Brownlee WTCS Yokohama 2023 run

There were positives. The unusual sight of seeing Brownlee in 30th position and half a minute down after just 750m of swimming was initially a little alarming to me. However, cutting that back to 20 seconds on lap two and then getting himself into the lead pack on the bike inside a lap and half of the nine-loop circuit, reflected more ‘business as usual’. Perhaps some ‘ring rust’ in the first race of the year in the first discipline, but ultimately JB was in that front group on two wheels for the vast majority of the race. He’s rarely been anywhere else in his entire career.

It’s that run, over the Olympic distance at least, that is still proving a difficult problem to solve. “Tough day in Yokohama… will work hard to put it right” said Jonny after his race.

So, does that mean a case of Olympic hopes are over? No. But could they be In the balance? Perhaps.

In the hands of others

Another key point I made last week, now (potentially) gains even greater gravitas – that Jonny will not be racing at WTCS Cagliari on Saturday 25 May. Remember, while there’s no opportunity to gain automatic selection, the race does represent the “priority” consideration race for athletes seeking individual event discretionary nomination on the basis of the selection panel considering that athlete as a ‘realistic individual medal contender‘.

So who will be there? The pre-selected and possibly Olympic favourite, Alex Yee, will look to repeat his victory at the event 12 months ago. He’ll be joined by Sam Dickinson, Barclay Izzard, Max Stapley and Hugo Milner.

As of today, Jonny Brownlee seemingly doesn’t meet that ‘realistic individual medal contender‘ assessment, but neither – Yee aside of course – do any of the other British men currently active or racing in Cagliari.

This is their very last opportunity to change that perspective – but it’s a high bar to reach.

Tom Bishop, Sam Dickinson, Barclay Izzard - Europe Triathlon Cup Caorle 2022
Photo Credit: Cecilia Frascaroli

No (Olympic) chances for Max Stapley. Literally.

Can anyone of those three athletes racing alongside Alex Yee produce some magic in Italy and grab that Olympic place? But John, there’s FOUR names there?! Yes, but as sometimes in life, ‘it’s complicated‘…

In simple terms, Max Stapley is not eligible for Great Britain Olympic selection for Paris 2024.

Second recently at the supertri E World Championship, Stapley then followed that up by taking his first World Triathlon Cup victory in Chengdu, China. Also sixth earlier this year in Hong Kong and with the sort of swim/bike strength which could perfectly suit the Mixed Team Relay and potentially a domestique role too, how is that the case?

Stapley completed the World Triathlon transfer process to race for Great Britain in June 2023, but back on 28 May 2022 he raced under the Australia flag at the World Triathlon Cup in Arzachena. Here, unfortunately for Max, is where the small print of the World Triathlon Qualification System has had major impact on his sporting ambitions. From that document:

To be eligible to participate in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, all athletes must represent the same National Federation during the whole qualification period

Athlete Eligibility – Paragraph C.3.

In this instance, that Olympic Qualification Ranking Period opened on 27 May 2022one day before that race in Arzachena. It’s a criteria that didn’t feature in the equivalent document ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Max explained his predicament when I spoke to him recently in London:

“First and foremost, I’d love to be at the Olympic Games. Obviously, I think I’ve got a skill set to match what’s required. I mean, at this point it is pretty clear that individually, Alex is the guy. I believe in my skills and sporting abilities are there to assist him if that were to be needed.

“And in the relay, I think I’ve proven myself in Sunderland last year and in Super League and on all these short formats that I can deliver with the best guys in the world. So, from that point of view, I’d very much put myself in the bag. I know I’m against stiff competition… but I’d like to give it a crack.”

Max Stapley World Triathlon Chengdu 2024 win
Photo Credit: Janos M. Schmidt / World Triathlon

There’s additional frustration too, in that Max outlines that he would never have been eligible to race for Australia in Paris:

“I wasn’t a citizen, still am not a citizen, so could not have competed for Australia anyway.

“So, it’s a shame that it’s become a case for Paris, because I feel like I’m only going to get better from here, before July and August.”

So, Paris could be the one that got away for Max – and Max could be the one that got away for Great Britain. His Olympic ambitions will have to be on hold for another cycle.

Can Milner produce a miracle?

He’s the new kid on the block, and Yokohama represented a baptism of fire at WTCS level for Hugo Milner. He actually finished in 39th, just one place and 18 seconds behind Jonny Brownlee. But those stats alone really don’t tell you much of a story as their races were poles apart.

31st in the water, his swim – it was non-wetsuit for the men – really impressed me. He was just eight seconds behind Jonny starting the bike, but unfortunately for him, at the front of a chasing group with no wheels to follow. With the likes of Jelle Geens and Matthew McElroy with him, all was not lost.

He was part of that chase group in the early stages, but into the third lap (of nine) and Milner lost pace on two wheels with that group and that proved incredibly costly. While Geens and company bridged back to the head of the race to even lead the run in the early stages, dropping from that pack saw the Harvard graduate ultimately start the run almost four minutes back. Anyone still think draft-legal triathlon is a ‘wet run’?!

He stuck to his task well and produced his trademark run (29:30), but by then the damage in terms of a top placing, was done. Milner is clearly a fantastic talent who will surely be destined for great things in the near future and those developing bike legs are surely just a matter of time to be added to his arsenal, alongside his rapidly improving swim.

But just two years into the sport, heading into his second WTCS event and with only two weeks to build on what he learned in Japan, it would be a remarkable turnaround were we to see him mixing it with the likes of Yee and Wilde on the run. To even be in the selection mix, I think he would likely have to do something remarkable like that – as right now, others seemingly have far more specific skills and credentials for the Mixed Team Relay than Hugo, something he is aware of.

Hugo Milner 2023 World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki Win
Hugo Milner wins World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki [Photo Credit – Janos M Schmidt/World Triathlon]

Dual ‘Team’ goals for Sam Dickinson, perhaps?

Two athletes that do bring extensive Mixed Team Relay experience to the table are Sam Dickinson and Barclay Izzard.

Sam was part of the gold medal winning Team England squad at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, and also earned World Championship silver that same year in Montreal. Even ‘that penalty‘ in Canada wasn’t really his fault… he’s a safe pair of hands.

Now, you’d be right to think that an Olympic distance event might not be the best audition format to showcase Mixed Relay skills, but for Dickinson, his Olympic prospects and value to British Triathlon could extend beyond that.

Perhaps forgotten now, Alex Yee’s Sutton Park gold in 2022 became a lot harder when we saw the unexpected sight of Hayden Wilde exit the swim towards the front and breakaway with Tayler Reid and Jamie Riddle. Up stepped Dickinson (and fellow Team England athlete, Dan Dixon) to put in some tough chasing to keep their leader in contention. It was a team performance truly valued by the gold medal winner: “This man here was a hero on the bike. He was unbelievable”, said Yee after the race of Dickinson.

Alex Yee Sam Dickinson
Could Sam Dickinson be the man to partner Alex Yee in the Mixed Team Relay? (Pic – World Triathlon).

With a strong relay leg on the books already this year, solid sprint and super-sprint format performances in Napier, Lievin and London, don’t be surprised if reminding the selectors of his potential as BOTH a Relay Specialist and Pilot athlete is reflected in his racing approach in Italy. How he races could be far more important than where he finishes…

While Dickinson joined the BMC Pro Triathlon squad earlier this year with middle-distance ambitions in due course, right now he’s all in on his Paris bid. Speaking to Sam at the recent supertri E World Championship in London, he told me when asking about his Olympic aspirations:

“For me it’s just do everything that I can do. I can’t control what Jonny Brownlee does – he’s a world-class athlete, he’s got three Olympic medals, he knows how to do it. So if Jonny’s not ready, I need to make sure that I am.”

BIG season debut for Izzard

Yee aside, Barclay Izzard’s eighth place at WTCS Sunderland was the top British male performance in the series last year.

He was also part of the silver medal-winning British MTR squad there and in Paris (albeit in duathlon format). He also raced alongside Dickinson in the young squad that took an unexpected gold at the WTCS Mixed Relay Hamburg in 2022.

His toughest challenge might be coming to Cagliari as the first race of his 2024 campaign – but the incentive is certainly a big one.

Barclay Izzard at WTCS Hamburg Mixed Relay 2022
Photo Credit: Petko Beier / World Triathlon

It really is then still all up in the air for the British men – and highly likely that even post-Cagliari, there may not be a clear favourite for selection. Yokohama hasn’t really answered too many questions and arguably asked even more. Will it still be the same in 10 days time?

The British women – three into two doesn’t go

While the are plenty of unanswered questions and ‘what ifs’ for the British men from Yokohama, the situation is perhaps a little less complex for the British women.

With World Champion Beth Potter already selected for Paris, British Triathlon have something of an embarrassment of riches in the women’s squad, with Sophie Coldwell (winner in Yokohama last year), Georgia Taylor-Brown (winner in Cagliari last year) and Kate Waugh (second at the Pontevedra Championship Finals / seventh at Paris Test Event) all readily ticking that ‘realistic individual medal contender’ box, outlined in their selection policy via proven, top-tier results.

Such has been Waugh’s progress that 10th this past weekend is solid, rather than spectacular, but quite rightly her short-term goal will be that Cagliari race where she’ll be aiming to be even sharper.

Beth Potter Kate Waugh World Triathlon Championship Finals 2023
Photo Credit: Wagner Araujo / World Triathlon

Still, she finished a minute clear of Vicky Holland (who won’t be in Cagliari), and injuries / illness aside, that would perhaps seem to end the Rio 2016 Olympic bronze medallist’s chances of reaching a fourth Olympic Games. I spoke at length to Vicky recently, and she still has plenty more goals for the rest of the season. Do check out that interview if you haven’t already.

Heading into Cagliari then, as well as having two additional slots to fill for the women, there’s far less focus needed on Mixed Team Relay skills – all of the contenders are strong across the board, are proven and in form. I’m reminded then of my discussion with British Triathlon’s Performance Director, Mike Cavendish last year when looking ahead to this upcoming race in Cagliari:

“Everything from now is discretionary, and we do that because triathlon is such an unpredictable sport, and we’ve seen before circumstances happen in a race that we don’t think will replicate what will happen in Paris, and we don’t want to pick the wrong athletes for the team.

“Cagliari is the priority race, the one that will carry the greatest weight.

What we’ve tried to say the athletes is, if you go to Cagliari, make it impossible for us not to select you.

“So if you go and win there, it’s going to be pretty hard for us to leave you at home. But if we had say three women all inside the top six or seven, and it’s a very close race, then we’d have to look at all of the other factors.”

So Cagliari might end up leaving the British Olympic selectors with more questions than answers for the men.

For the women however, I’m pretty certain that some of those decisions will be answered in the best possible style.

Saturday 25 May 2024. Don’t miss it.

Georgia Taylor-Brown WTCS Cagliari win 2023
Phot Credit: World Triathlon
John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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