The triathlon is that infernal sport in which you take three perfectly good leisure-time activities and dial them up until you have a Navy SEAL equivalence exam. It's a swim in the bay, a little bike ride down a park path and then a jog up the street. But it's exaggerated just enough to take all the fun out of it. When exercise becomes so immoderate that the jog stretches to 10K and is complicated by so many different outfits, well, you've gone from recreational to debilitating.
Yet it's awfully fun to watch, and not because the combination of three sports adds up to anything special. It's that a triathlon (which was on trial in Sydney) becomes the host city's postcard, a 2�-hour travelogue that sells better than Paul Hogan ever did. It's the only event in which you can watch the start of the race from a picnic blanket in the Royal Botanic Gardens and see the windup from the steps of the Opera House.
Consider this: The morning is warm, the sun bright, but you've got a spot under a banyan tree, overlooking Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour. The men slap into the water from a platform below the Opera House and, at no disadvantage to the scenery, disappear around the bay. They are protected from beneath by a diver with a shark-discouraging electromagnetic device and from the sides by attendants on surfboards. Thus, there is not much danger to their race (they will neither become bait nor drown), making it possible for you to examine the backdrop with, as [hey say here, no worries.
It turns out a strange armada has gathered in the bay to furnish the vista: an entire history of seafaring, from standard pleasure boats to luxury yachts to three-masted schooners to catamarans. The green-and-yellow ferries of all sizes that service the vast bay scoot by at impressive speed. An oil tanker is pushed along by small tugs, much more slowly....
And the swimmers have returned, churning the bay in a far longer string now, hustling up a ramp and heading for their bikes to take their six laps around a large park. As you make your way to the park's border to see the bikers, you are stopped a number of times by exotic flora, a tree with roots dropping from its limbs, just for an example. Also, what old architecture seems to exist in Sydney is contained in the park. The Government House is here, the Art Gallery, Sydney Hospital—ancient sandstone, with green filigrees of ironwork, all vaguely reminiscent of colonial times. You can imagine a long-ago life, all those convicts fresh off the boat, British rule trying to fashion a brand-new country.
Then, before you can even catch a glimpse of the bikers—which ought not to be that hard since 150,000 people only slightly more determined than you have found a way to get within high-five distance of Olympic competitors—they're off their bikes and into their running mode. Thankfully, the run is (mostly) along the same course and, if you don't walk too far up MacQuarie Street and don't get too fascinated by the spires of St. Mary's Cathedral at the turnaround, you will see a runner or two. It's no longer possible to tell which one of them is leading—they're all strung out now and the fans are no help, cheering their own with their "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" chant. But, as you gather from this discourse, it hardly matters.
Surely, the triathlon rewards a weird kind of endurance, an odd combination of skill sets. So we properly celebrate it. But the real point of this triathlon is not sports but scenery. For this event only, the real winners are not them, but us.