• Michellie Jones of Australia in action during the Women's Triathlon held at the Sydney Opera House during the Sydney 2000 Olympics (Allsports)Source: Allsports
Take an armchair ride through the history of triathlon at the Olympics with your tour guide, triathlon expert Stef Hanson.
Stef Hanson

18 Aug 2016 - 8:27 AM  UPDATED 18 Aug 2016 - 8:03 AM

For those who aren’t swim, bike, run frothers, triathlon is more often than not pigeon holed as “Ironman” – that grueling one day event in Hawaii which consists of a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and a 42.2km run, and around nine hours worth of pain! 

But, triathlon in its purity is swim, bike and run over a variety of distances, and actually originated in San Diego in the 1970s when track athletes were looking for a type of cross training. The first official triathlon was born in 1974 with a 10km run, 8km cycle and a 500m swim, with the first “Ironman” taking place in Hawaii four years later in 1978.

And the winner is SYD-OH-NEE!!!

Fast forward to when a tremendous roar could be heard across this Great Southern Land, when Sydney was announced as the host for the 2000 Olympic Games. Triathlon made its debut with the magical backdrop of two of the most recognisable structures in the world, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This year in Rio, triathlon takes place on one of the last days, but in Sydney 2000, triathlon was THE showcase event. It was the first event on the program, the first ever Olympic triathlon and expectations were high for an Australian to medal and kick-start the hopes of Olympic glory in our home country. The bond between triathlon in Australia and the Olympics became strong.

The standard distance format was derived from the sports that were already part of the Olympics – the 1500m swim, 40km bike and the 10km run, and is approximately two hours of heart thumping, lactate inducing blood, sweat and tears. In the decade preceding the Sydney Olympic Games, the Australian women absolutely dominated in this format of triathlon racing.

Heck in 1999 the top five women across the line at the ITU World Championship were Australian - Loretta Harrop, Jackie Gallagher, Emma Carney, Michellie Jones and Joanne King. And at the end of the year based on ranking – the top four in the world, were Australian. While the Aussies looked to be on song for Olympic glory, how would it be possible to whittle a wealth of talent down to just three spots for the Olympics? A great problem to have for Olympic selectors. 

The big day came around with all eyes on Michellie Jones, Loretta Harrop and Nicole Hackett, who were the three athletes who were eventually chosen to represent – a tough call for selectors, and a tough pill to swallow for Emma Carney and Jackie Gallagher who both lodged appeals, ultimately over ruled by the powers that be.

A gold medal and/or a handful of medals were a very real chance for the Australians, and it was Michellie Jones who swam, rode and ran away with a silver medal behind Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon. Five years later, McMahon failed a drug test, admitting to using EPO for “therapeutic reasons, and in small dosage.” The elite triathlete and trained biochemist, McMahon, added that she had not used EPO during the Sydney Olympic Games.

While there was obvious disappointment to miss out on the gold, a silver medal for Jones was the start of Australia’s success at the Olympics and since then, Australia has finished on the podium at every Olympics – a feat that no other country (male or female) has achieved.

2000: Silver medal to Michellie Jones

2004: Silver medal to Loretta Harrop

2008: Gold medal to Emma Snowsill AND bronze medal to Emma Moffatt

2012: Bronze medal to Erin Densham

Hands down the greatest triathlon finish we’ve ever seen. A photo finish for Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden for first and second (Spirig the winner), and a strong finish for Densham in third.

While each Olympic cycle is impressive, the highlight for Australia would have to be Beijing in 2008. It was an impressive display by Emma Snowsill to run away with the gold medal, and fellow country woman, Emma Moffatt claiming bronze.

Snowsill made her way to the front on the run, running solo and even took a slight wrong turn as she neared the finish chute, hurdling one of the barriers arguably as tall as her, to get back on track and win by over a minute, a huge gap in this format of racing.

So what can this year bring? Australia has two three time Olympic qualifiers, both with bronze medals to their name. Emma Moffatt and Erin Densham, and Ashleigh Gentle a powerhouse who will represent for the first time at the Olympics. Can any of these three women keep the Olympic medal streak alive for Australia?

All will play out on Saturday 20th at midnight AEST.

Stef Hanson is the Chief Editor of dedicated triathlon website wistup.com