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|August 23, 2000||
Triathlon set to steal show on debutMitch Philips in London
The triathlon could not have picked a more spectacular place for its Olympic debut than Sydney, a picture postcard course in and around the city's stunning harbour.
Featuring a 1,500 metres sea swim, a 40 km bike ride and a 10 km run, competitors will surge out to sea in a mass of foam and flying elbows to try to gain an early advantage.
Next they transfer, still dripping wet, on to their hi-tech, featherlight bikes before tearing around the lapped course, stretched out on low-profile handlebars.
Then, in a second change of kit that would leave Superman still adjusting his underpants in the phone box, they exchange bike shoes for runners and set off for the final leg.
Despite the physical difficulty encountered when the muscles are suddenly asked to do a totally different job they will then post a 10 km time that would have been not far off an Olympic medal on the track a few years ago.
Once dismissed as a sport for also-rans who were not quite up to scratch in any of the individual events, the triathlon is now recognised as a true test of prowess in three of the Olympics' most time-honoured disciplines.
It has a short history, the first low key combination events recorded as recently as the mid-1970s.
The first Hawaii Ironman in 1978 gave the sport some structure as three existing events -- the 3.8 km Waikiki Swim, the 180 km round-the-island bike race and the Honolulu Marathon run over 42.195 km -- were linked into one.
As the Ironman developed and earned impressive television audiences in the United States, boosted by the sight of exhausted athletes literally crawling the last few metres of the brutally tough test, grass root interest also grew.
The Ironman was out of reach for most but it spawned shorter events that attracted athletes from all three disciplines.
Eventually standard distances were set, though other combinations continue to thrive. But then came the debates about rules which still divide the sport.
The most contentious issue is that of "drafting" in the bike section, i.e. tucking closely behind another rider to gain a towing advantage in their slipstream.
While still outlawed in most amateur events, the professional and elite races have long given up trying to police the pack and now the athletes work together, just as in any normal bike race.
Purists complain this has reduced the importance of the bike leg and given too much emphasis to the run, as all the leaders tend to stay bunched in a pack for the duration.
It can also make for chaotic transitions as a mass of competitors arrive as one with bikes, helmets and shoes flying.
The sport has also been rent by internal politics and a struggle for international control.
In Australia, where triathlon's popularity is immense, many disgruntled athletes have spent more time with lawyers than coaches as they have fought against Olympic selection policy.
Officials hardly helped their cause by their disastrous staging of the world championships in Perth in April, when a wrongly measured course left the leading women finishers all briefly celebrating what would have been world record 10 km times.
That led to more finger-pointing and buck-passing and sparked a new round of legal appeals by athletes from various nations, whose Olympic qualification hopes had been ruined by the farcical race.
Concerns over possible shark attacks in the Sydney race also appeared after organisers said they planned to use divers with sonar devices to scare the beasts away.
That scheme has now been dropped, however, and as triathlon finally comes of age the Olympic competitors' greatest fear will remain losing their goggles in the opening melee.
Mail Sports Editor
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