Winter Triathlon – A prospective Olympic sport


10.02.22 at 9:18 am

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When I talk about winter triathlon people are always asking about the swim. It gives an image of icy dips and very cold, wet bike rides but, this is not the case. Winter triathlon involves running, a mountain bike ride and a cross country ski to finish – all on snow. The races take about an hour and half and the course length is set to the snow conditions such that the race always takes roughly this length of time. 

It’s an interesting sport to watch and the highlights from the 2019 championships in Asiago can be seen below. Watching a race start to finish, usually via World Triathlon’s live streamer, is worth doing. It has an interesting dynamic as there’s a little more variance in ability across the three sports meaning athletes often come charging through for the win right at the end. It would be fair to say that winter triathlon is a minority sport with the majority of readers having probably never heard of it.  

Winter triathlon is a very different sport to triathlon, the top athletes are not the same with almost no crossover into the summer version of the sport. This is hardly surprising given the technical difficulty of the last discipline, cross country skiing. Also, athletes competing in winter triathlon do not swim yet for triathletes this is an important discipline. There is, however, a little bit of crossover with XTERRA (off-road multisport which takes place in summer), especially duathlon. Winter triathletes are fast runners and good mountain bikers. The snowy mountain bike trails are not always the most technical but the snow provides a difficult surface to ride on meaning top riders are technically proficient. This is also a sport where races are often held at altitude which adds another layer of difficulty to the event. 

There’s no doubt that winter triathlon is a hard sport and it’s definitely one that’s worth a try if you know how to cross country ski, but can it ever make the winter olympics?  

What makes a sport a Winter Olympic sport?

In order to become an Olympic sport, summer or winter, a sport must satisfy the criteria laid out by the IOC. This criteria is broadly described by the following:

  1. The IOC must recognise the sport.

For this the sport must have a governing body overseeing it, this governing body must be an international non-governmental organisation. Once a sport is recognised it moves onto International Sports Federation (IF) status. 

2. The sport must enforce the Olympic Movement Anti-Doping Code, conduct out of competition tests on athletes and maintain the rules set by the Olympic Charter. 

This simply means, once a sport is recognised by the IOC it must enforce the rules that the IOC deem necessary for the sport to remain fair. Steps one and two don’t automatically mean a sport is admitted into the Olympics. 

3. To be able to become an ‘Olympic sport’, the federation must apply. It does so by filing a petition establishing its criteria of eligibility to the IOC.

One interesting point from the Olympic Charter around mass participation. A sport must be widely practised by men in no fewer than 75 countries and on four continents. Said sport must also be practised by women in no fewer than 40 countries on three continents. There are a number of other factors which dictate whether a sport is accepted into the Olympics including increasing the “value and appeal” of the Olympic Games and reflect it’s modern traditions. 

Why does winter triathlon want to become an Olympic sport? 

Winter triathlon was created in its current form in 2013 by World Triathlon (back then they were the ITU). It existed as a sport in various other forms before this. The oldest race I could find was “The Winterlude Triathlon” in Canada – part of a Winter festival held in Ottawa. This race involves skating 8km, skiing 6km and running 5km. In 2014 the ITU applied to have winter triathlon in the Sochi games – it was denied inclusion. It’s difficult to judge and information on the application is scarce but this is possibly due to the lack of ‘wide practice’. I do not believe winter triathlon is practised in 40 countries on four continents. The three sports individually are widely practised. Ultimately, triathlon wants to become a winter sport for the same reason it wanted (successfully) to be part of the Sydney Summer Games – the Olympics bring growth to your sport enabling higher revenue, more full time athletes and wider recognition. 

How likely is it that winter triathlon will be a Winter Olympic sport? 

Every year that the Olympics (winter or otherwise) are on there’s always a public discussion about whether certain sports should be included. This discussion is intensified for the winter games as the subtleties in the sport are not always obvious to the untrained viewer. With a wider uptake of winter triathlon, as well as the creation of accessible “summer” versions, I think that World Triathlon have a shot at a successful application to the IOC. It’s fair to say the run, mountain bike and ski combination make for a good watch and would be fun to take part in. Winter triathlon satisfies most of the requirements for an Olympic sport but perhaps mass participation needs to increase. 

If World Triathlon take steps to become more inclusive this will improve the uptake – perhaps asking federations to host ‘summer winter triathlons’ alongside duathlons and subsidise the cost of entry then this third requirement is more likely to be met. I am a fan of winter triathlon and it’s something I will continue to watch into the future. 

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