Road To Paris 2024: How to qualify for an Olympic Games triathlon, and win medals

Explaining the qualification landscape ahead of the big dance in France

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Triathlon great Mark Allen continues his ‘Road to Paris 2024’ series by speaking to top coach Ian O’Brien about the journey to the big dance, and the complicated qualification route to the Olympic Games triathlon.

Ian O’Brien coached athletes to silver at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and also masterminded several IRONMAN 70 .3 World Championship victories. His athletes have won gold at PTO events, the Collins Cup and at the WTCS Grand Final. Few know the ins and outs of Olympic Distance racing better than Ian.

He understands the complex points system which gets you to Paris. He’s also a laser when it come to knowing what it takes to develop an athlete through this journey. In our interview (you can watch the full version at the bottom of this page), Ian did his best to give the “grandma and grandpa can understand it” version of what all this takes.

He told me: “It’s quite a journey. And the development takes a long time. There’s tactical awareness, technique, skill, metabolic conditioning, and strength conditioning. And because triathlon technically has four modalities… swim, bike, running and transition…there’s a lot of stuff to cover.

“Initially, we try to identify athletes with a good swimming and running background. Then it’s the long process and hard work to development them as they go through the points earning process.

Qualification – points mean prizes, and Paris

“Starting at the top, the World Triathlon Championship Series get the most points. Then it drops down from there at the World Cup races, where you get slightly less, and even less can be earned at Continental Cup races.

“To get to the big events that can qualify you for your Olympic team, your world ranking has to be high enough to get you to an event that your country is using to select its team. We saw Gwen Jorgensen race 17 times last year to get ranked high enough among the US women to be able to get entry into the WTCS races where she could vie for a spot on the team.

“USA Triathlon marked three events for this selection. Two have already happened (Paris and Pontevedra last year). The next one will be Yokohama in May.

“Going back in time to Paris, if a US athlete finished top 3, they automatically qualified. Then if another athlete was in the top 8, that person would also qualify. But if the first US athlete was in the top 8 but not on the podium, then that would be the only US qualifier even if a second person also finished in the top 8.

“Looking ahead to Yokohama, it gets even tougher. To automatically qualify you have to be top 3. End of discussion!

“So far only two US athletes have qualified outright, both in Paris. Taylor Knibb ended up 5th and Morgan Pearson was 6th. If we go through all three races and not all the spots are earned, then there is a discretionary process that USA Triathlon will use to select athletes based on various merits.

“The number of athletes from the US that will be in Yokohama depends on the other countries. Usually, the top five from each country will go. But if people from other countries opt out, that opens the possibility of roll down spots. So, we could end up with six or seven US athletes per gender going there, which makes it even more exciting because there’s a whole bunch of US athletes who are in contention.”

Podiums, and medals

When asked what he sees as the winning strategy for getting on the podium in any Olympics here is what Ian had to say:

“The origin of success goes back to what countries have done in previous years leading up to this period. The countries which have made the long-term investments in their development processes are the ones who are crushing it.

“Look at France for example. They’ve got elite academies and good coaches. They’ve got small teams that operate as a true team when they go to a race. The teams have their own sponsorships. And France has the Grand Prix series that recruits athletes from all over the world. The French benefit massively from that. Germany has the Bundesliga, which is a very similar thing.

“It’s different to the United States, where even logistically thinking about having a league and teams that compete against each other is hard. It’s so spread out it’s difficult to get from one place to the next.

“Looking ahead to LA in 2028, success will come by having a long -term developmental goal. But even if we start right now, by the time we get to those Games four years from now, that’s not enough time.

“Going way back to an earlier point I made, the key is to find talent, develop them from a young age…younger than most do so far here in the US…give them experience, give them support, give them guidance, and do all that with a long-term vision.”


Mind games

Known for coaching the whole athlete, Ian talked about the mental side of performance.

“I have a belief process that I guide my athletes with. It stems from knowing you’ve got to take risk. You’ve got to put yourself out there. Be bold, then repeat being bold. Repetition brings belief. Belief brings confidence. Confidence enables control.

“Once you’re in control, you can develop capability. And then it’s an athlete’s job to simply ask am I being the best version of myself right now?”

The 2024 season – the build-up to Paris and then the Games – should be thrilling from start to finish. It’s an exciting time, and one fans should immerse themselves in according to Ian.

“This year is going to be great. I love the dynamics of the sport. A lot of people just watch it on the TV and go, ‘oh, that’s exciting’. But there’s so much more that you can gain as a fan of the sport by watching the points leading into big events. Understand the points system and how it changes after each race. That’s where it gets interesting.

“When you start knowing who’s who, who the players are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, that’s what makes it interesting. Leading into Paris is going to be something else. I’m super pumped.

“Two key races to keep your eye on before Paris are Abu Dhabi (March 8-9) and Yokohama (May 11-12). Enjoy the ride!”

Mark Allen
Written by
Mark Allen
Mark Allen has to be in any conversation about the greatest triathlete of all time. A six-time IRONMAN World Champion, he won every other title that mattered in the sport and dominated like few others


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