How to Watch: Understanding Olympic Triathlon

Marcus Maher tells Newstalk Sport about the ins and outs of an event featuring two Irish contenders

Bryan Keane, Aileen Reid, triathlon

Ireland's Aileen Reid and Bryan Keane ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Swim, cycle, run. It’s a simple concept but a testing one for the body to fulfill.

On August 18th, the men’s Olympic triathlon takes place at Rio’s Fort Copacabana course with 55 athletes scheduled to take part.

Two days later, another 55 athletes will take part in the women’s event.

Ireland will have representatives at the start line of both the male and female events. Cork’s Bryan Keane, who spoke to Newstalk Sport about his own remarkable route to Rio, and Derry’s Aileen Reid will be kitted out in green in the hope of getting their hands on medals.

But what are the challenges both athletes face? What is the course like?

I caught up with film-maker Marcus Maher, who put together Team 33’s Iceland special including an interview with Eidur Gudjohnsen’s father Arnor, during Euro 2016.

Marcus represented Ireland in the triathlon twice, once in the World Championships in Lausanne in 2006 and then in Lisbon in 2008, and was one of the early members of Triathlon Ireland.

He explains a few of the factors regarding a sport that was introduced to the Olympics in 2016?

What makes a good triathlete?

Triathlon, basically, is swimming for 1.5 kilometres, followed by a cycle for 40 kilometres and finally a 10km run to the finish line.

"In the past, they started out individually. Some would be good swimmers, some would be good cyclists and others would be good and runners and then they would cobble that together and take on triathlon," says Marcus.

"It’s very nuanced today. It’s very different. Triathlon today, you don’t come from one background. You actually are a triathlete so you’d be strong in swimming, cycling and running. Of course, the better triathletes would be strong - a lot of them would be stronger in the run - because it’s very much the last discipline. But I think the key to triathlon in the past was that there was a lot of swimmers who became triathletes and they were successful. But they would never be that dominant because the run would always let them down.Today in modern triathlon, you really do have to be strong in all three disciplines. So you have to be equally as competent in the water as you are on the bike as you do on the run.

"I would say the bike is probably the easiest because if you can get together in a group or peleton, then that really helps you restore your legs and then it usually comes down to, in Olympic distance, the 10 kilometre run. So today, it’s really different because you do have to strong at all three.

"The race in triathlon is not won on the swim - you can lose it on the swim, which is an old cliche."

Marcus Maher in action

Who are the main contenders?

At the last Olympics, Alistair Brownlee won gold, while his brother Jonathan won bronze in London. The silver medal went to Spain’s Javier Gomez.

Of the top guys, Marcus says: "The British guys, Alistair Brownlee and Jonathan Brownlee from Leeds, they’ve dominated triathlon over the last 5-6 years, since the Olympic Games - not so much recently. There’s been a few new triathletes coming into the scene but [the Brownless] are still seen as the watermark in triathlon.

"And they ironically come from a very strong running background. But they’re equally strong at swimming and the bike. So they are the complete triathletes in my opinion."

How has Ireland fared at Olympics triathlon?

This year, Byran Keane and Aileen Reid will take part in the Men’s and Women’s competitions respectively.

"This will be the third Olympics that we’ve had a representation in Ireland. We’ve had one athlete either from the female side or the male side representing us since Beijing in 2008," says Marcus of the growth of the sport at elite level in Irish circles.

"So it tells you that literally in 10 years, we’re now putting two athletes into the Olympic games consistently. In London it was Gavin Noble and Aileen Morrison (who is now Aileen Reid) and this year again it will be Aileen Reid and good old Bryan Keane. It’s great to see him there.

Aileen Reid and Bryan Keane ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

"Bryan is going to be one of the elder statesmen in the race. He’s going to turn 36 during the Olympics which is actually next month. I think if Bryan can get out of the swim in a pack then anything’s possible. What was a great surprise in London was that Gavin came 23rd, and a little caveat to that was that he beat both Mario Mola (Spain) and Richard Murray (South Africa), who are actually going to go to Rio as very strong favourites alongside the Brownlee brothers, and in London Gavin beat them [in the swim] because they had a very bad swim. I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. I think both Mola and Murray will be up there and I think if Byran can get in the Top 20, I think that will be an incredible achievement. I think he could well do that. He’s a very strong runner and comes from a running background. Again, it very much depends on the day." 

The Fort Copacabana course

The Rio triathlon takes place at the Fort Copacabana venue and there was a test event in 2015 for the athletes. Marcus has previously lived briefly in Brazil.

"I’ve swam the course, I’ve done the swimming section. It’s a tough course. You’ve got a lot of hills there - I lived in Brazil for a bit - it’s not flat. It’s quite a hilly course."