LONDON — Is triathlon an individual sport or a team sport? The answer is usually individual — that is, unless your country has decided to have a change of opinion for the Olympics.
In January 2012, the British Triathlon Federation published its annual rulebook for the national races it oversees, and this was General Rule No. 21.7:
Triathlon, duathlon and aquathlon events are individual endurance events. Any teamwork that provides an unfair advantage over other competitors is expressly forbidden, unless the event is a team-based competition where cooperating with and assisting each other is part of the event.
Seems pretty clear, right? But in February 2012, the British Triathlon Federation published its “2012 Olympic Games Selection Policy,” which included these three bullet-points:
• the goal of the Team is to win Olympic medals for Great Britain;
• a ‘domestique’ is a team member whose primary role is to support other athletes during the triathlon race at the Olympic Games, in order to maximize the medal winning potential of the Team. A domestique will be an athlete who, in the opinion of the Selection Committee, has the ability to contribute to the medal-winning potential of the Team, even though he or she may not be considered a medal contender or the ‘next best’ all-round triathlon competitor;
• this Policy allows the Selection Committee to nominate athletes to fulfil ‘domestique’ roles in order to improve the Team’s ability to achieve medal-winning performances and meet its overall objectives;
With a home-turf medal at Hyde Park on the line, the BTF was suddenly all for teamwork. Team Great Britain had a formidable contender for gold in Saturday’s Olympic women’s triathlon: 28-year-old Helen Jenkins, who entered the race ranked No. 2 in the world and had dominated the test event on the same course a year ago. For its other two competitors, Team GB selected 26-year-old Vicky Holland, the world No. 10 … and then, in a controversial move, 20-year-old Lucy Hall. She was the world No. 148, which made her the lowest ranked triathlete of anyone, from any country, competing in the Olympics.
Hall was the designated domestique due to her ability to set the pace in the open swim, and the BTF was up front about that. But to choose her, the BTF had to pass over no fewer than eight higher-ranked women, and many of them were not pleased. The one with the biggest gripe, No. 20-ranked Liz Blatchford, said that Jenkins was capable of winning on her own, and that “giving Olympic spots to domestiques is a complete and utter waste.” Blatchford appealed BTF’s decision and when that failed, considered taking legal action. (She later decided against it and retired from international competition.) Jenkins’ coach and husband, Marc, defended the strategy in the Guardian by saying, “The logical thing is to increase your chances [of a medal]. It may work. It may be a disaster. Who knows. But why not give it a try?”
Domestiques — servants in French — are standard presences in distance cycling and running events, but they are not deployed with regularity in triathlons. Canada’s use of one in the Beijing Games, with Colin Jenkins supporting silver-medalist Simon Whitfield in order to help him avenge a sans-domestique flop in Athens, may have planted the seed for the female Brits. In a Q&A on 220triathlon.com, Jenkins was asked if the influence of domestiques is overstated, and this was his answer:
A domestique can be a very powerful influence. Everyone knew what my role was in Beijing and that played with athlete’s minds. People don’t want to breakaway when they know that there’s someone behind them that’ll do anything to chase them down. And I would’ve given everything to chase them down. Of course, you can’t chase every breakaway so knowing who the favourites are — and making sure they don’t get away — is the key.
(Lucy Hall leads the pack: Mike Powell/SI)
Hall’s role in Saturday’s race — what the Brits called their Plan A — was to swim like mad, stretching the pace 30-40 seconds ahead of what the leaders would typically want, and to bring Jenkins and Holland along in her wake. Hall and Holland would then co-protect Jenkins by pushing the cycling section, before letting her take off on her own in the 10k run. “We wanted to swim really hard, bike really hard, and have as few contenders as possible left for Helen [in the run],” Holland said.
Out of the gate, Hall seemed to be doing her job, flying into the lead on the swim … but Jenkins and Holland got stuck in a chase group and were unable to keep up. (“In hindsight I wish I would have looked behind me a bit more,” she said. “I kind of assumed that Helen and Vic were there.”) This created a bit of a domino effect: Hall finished first in the swim, but was stuck in the lead cycling group without any of her teammates. Holland got involved in a crash on the first cycling lap that prevented her from supporting Jenkins, which left Jenkins to play catch-up on her own. Jenkins was 10th after the swim, seventh after the bike and started the running stage neck-and-neck with the other medal contenders — namely Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Sweden’s Lisa Norden — but the goal had been for the domestiques to get her a head start.
Jenkins stayed with the lead running pack until the final lap, when Spirig and Norden pulled away by a significant margin. They went 1-2 on the medal stand without the aid of domestiques, while Jenkins faded and finished 31 seconds behind, in fifth place. Holland was 26th and Hall, who was first after the swim and first after the sixth bike lap (of seven), finished 33rd. She essentially disappeared once the running stage started. That was the end of her Olympic service to Great Britain, whose gambit to maximize its medal potential did not go according to plan.