The world-wide triathlon community has received an amazing gift. The gift was the Olympic debut of the sport. It was given by the dedicated athletes who trained for years and raced their hearts out, giving us an incredibly exciting competition in both the men’s and women’s events. It was given by NBC, who gave the new sport almost undue prominence by showing both races in prime time Saturday and Sunday evening slots in a country where the sport is still relatively obscure. And it was given by the local Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee, the ITU, and its local race organizing committee who located the event in such a spectacular and well-known venue that it couldn’t help but be the center of attention for that first opening weekend of the games.
There was quite a group of athletes assembled for this monumental time. There were 48 women and 52 men. Certainly the elder statesman of the sport was Rob Barel of the Netherlands. At 42 years old he was 7 years older than the next oldest male competitor. After 18 years in triathlon he had competed in 261 races in 31 countries with 120 wins including Long Distance Worlds and the European Championships. How fitting that the Olympics were his final race before retirement. The oldest women were the famous Mouthon twins, Beatrice and Isabelle, of France, true veterans of the sport also.
So there I was glued to my television set as Sheila Taormina blazed through Sydney Harbor way out in front of the rest of the field. As she ran into T1 grinning from ear to ear, right arm high in the air waving to the enormous crowd, the cameras captured one of the most precious moments of the Olympic Games. Her unbridled joy at that instant was so evident and powerful that her smile is indelibly etched in my memory forever. She was a veritable poster child for Olympic Triathlon. I had inadvertently checked my email that morning. I meant to skip it and be in suspense for the tape-delayed broadcast, but I knew the outcome ahead of time after all. It didn’t matter one bit. There was so much to watch and be excited about: the beautiful venue, challenging course, crowds lining the whole route (some estimates counted 300,000, and that doesn’t include ticket holders in the stands!) and “our” girls gamely putting up one hell of a fight. The coverage was great. It had NBC’s melodramatic Ironman stamp all over it, but this time it was more appropriate than ever. Lisa Lax, coordinator of NBC’s Ironman broadcast, and the voice of Al Trautwig made the presentation com-fortably familiar to longtime triathlon viewers.
The amount of coverage was a pleasant surprise, too. We had all hoped for some decent exposure, but didn’t expect to see most of the race unfold start to finish. There was nearly an hour of time devoted to the women’s race. The men’s race had less total time and more interruptions, but it still was close to 40 minutes of air time. We can probably give a measure of thanks to Mike McCarley, NBC’s PR man, who just happens to have left that same position at USA Triathlon earlier this year. It is good to have friends in high places.
Millions of Americans now know what triathlon is for the first time. Nothing else could have accomplished that. That’s quite a gift.