Looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics, USA Triathlon shares the status on the U.S. Olympic team and qualification process.
In just two years, we’ll be watching triathlon in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, but so far, we don’t know who the U.S. will be sending or how exactly they’ll get there. However it plays out, Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager, emphasizes that USAT is changing its focus in the qualification process: “One of the things is we’re trying to really elicit a focus on and a change in—from a cultural standpoint—is focusing on going to the Games to win, and to earn medals, and not just making the team,” Schmitz says. “A lot of the focus in the past has been on, ‘Hey I want to qualify for the U.S. team.’ We don’t want that to be the bar that’s set for our athletes, but it’s more about going to the Games to achieve, not just going to the Games.”
To accomplish that goal, a committee from USAT will be deliberating starting in August (informal discussions have already begun) to determine the selection criteria for the 2016 Olympic Games. The criteria will then have to be approved by the USAT board of directors, and then the U.S. Olympic Committee. Schmitz believes the qualification process will be similar to the process for the 2012 Games.
“The likely probability is a multi-pronged approach, which may be one or more automatic selection events, and then additional objective criteria, which would enable us to confirm an athlete’s medal potential based on performance on the field of play,” Schmitz says. The additional objective criteria would be in place in case, for example, No. 1-ranked Gwen Jorgensen or defending Olympics fourth-place finisher Sarah Groff had a flat tire in a selection event or got the flu right before—it would allow them to still make the team despite some sudden unfortunate circumstance because they’re both proven to be medal capable at the WTS level.
However, no athletes will be excluded from the selection process—the two rounds of approval are in place to ensure fair and equitable criteria. “We’ll give every athlete the opportunity to meet a threshold or a standard that we feel is commensurate with earning an automatic start,” Schmitz says.
The challenge right now, however, is that ITU has not released the calendar for 2015 and 2016. “Given the realities in Rio, there may not be a WTS event there, so the question is, if it’s a World Cup, where will it be slated?” he says. “So it may be, for example, identifying WTS courses that are similar to what we expect in Rio, and identifying them as being mechanisms that athletes could secure an automatic berth by finish place at competitive events. … There definitely will be a test event in Rio; what we don’t know is will it be a Continental Cup, a World Cup, a WTS race?” Whatever the test event, USAT believes there will be a lot of high-level athletes who attend that race in Rio to preview the Olympic course; however, if it’s not a WTS race, it might not have the same caliber of athletes that would be racing in the Olympics. The test event in London was perfect—it was exactly one year out, on the Olympic course and was a standalone WTS race—it was arguably more competitive than the Olympics, even, as countries could send more than two or three athletes. “What we want to do is make sure that whatever standards we set for a Rio event are commensurate with the level of event that will be contested there,” Schmitz says.
Another possibility, Schmitz says, is building a team around a medal contender by including a domestique, something Great Britain attempted with swimmer Stuart Hayes assisting gold medalist Alistair Brownlee and bronze medalist Jonathan Brownlee in London. “I think there is definitely an appetite for a domestique,” Schmitz says—but only if there is the right combination of athletes. “There are two things that need to be in place: No. 1 is the capability of the athlete to be assisted, and [No. 2] the capability of the athletes to assist. What we don’t want to do is build a team if it’s an unproven commodity. But if we can prove that we can be successful with that as an approach, we absolutely [will do that].”
However, the chance to select a domestique might not come up—USAT will only use a domestique if athletes don’t meet the automatic threshold that is set. For example, if the U.S. athletes have a chance to qualify at two events by finishing top eight and the spots on the Olympic team get filled, then those athletes will go to Rio to race as individuals. Only if those automatic standards are not met, and there is a combination of athletes who would be realistically successful in the Olympic Games, would there be a domestique on the U.S. team. “We’re not looking for a Hail Mary here,” Schmitz says. “We’re looking for something that’s tried and proven, and not just sticking somebody in for kicks.”
ITU’s qualification period falls between May 15, 2014 and May 15, 2016, and athletes must meet ITU’s criteria as well as USAT’s. ITU requires that the athletes on the Olympic team have either won a quota place for their national team at the ITU Continental Olympic Qualification Events; won a quota place for their team at the 2015 ITU World Olympic Qualification Event; or are among the top 140 in the ITU Olympic Qualification List, in the 2015 ITU WTS Series Ranking or in the ITU Points List.
Who to Watch for 2016
While a lot could happen in the next two years, there are a number of athletes who have a good shot at making the 2016 Olympic team.
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) allows for a total field of 55 men and 55 women, and each nation will be able to send either two or three athletes per gender, based on ranking. Only eight national federations are awarded three slots, so the U.S. will likely have three women’s slots, based on how well the U.S. women have been racing, and two men’s slots.
Here’s a rundown of athletes to keep an eye on for Rio.