Astride her bike in the middle of a peloton careering through the
streets of Sydney last Saturday morning, U.S. triathlete Joanna
Zeiger forced herself to drink in her surroundings as well as her
electrolytes. She had swum 1,500 meters in the sun-dappled waters
of Sydney Harbour and then switched to cycling at the front steps
of a postcard come to life, the Opera House, where the Olympic
triathlon had started and would finish. The crowds lining the
sides of the streets that would serve as both the biking and
running course were 10 deep and in full throat. This, Zeiger
thought, is totally amazing.
New Olympic sports customarily take abuse. Think of it as hazing.
Since 1984, 11 disciplines have been added to the Games. Some
remain objects of quadrennial ridicule. (Synchronized swimming
and rhythmic gymnastics come to mind.) Others are largely ignored
(table tennis and badminton) except by fans from countries where
these games are played well. Still other new Olympic sports have
been accepted (beach volleyball, most of all) more for artistic
and/or cultural reasons than for athletic ones.
However, triathlon, which along with taekwondo was chosen by the
Australian organizers to make its Olympic debut, was given a
prominent place in the Sydney Games (although it needs further
approval by the IOC for permanent inclusion in the Olympics).
The women's tri began less than 12 hours after Cathy Freeman
ignited the Olympic flame--and at a place where the sport was
sure to get the utmost attention. Nearly two years before the
Games, triathlon competition manager David Hansen had stood on
the steps of the Opera House and explained what the venue would
look like in September 2000. Now the world was watching, and the
event measured up to its spectacular setting with rugged
open-water swims, pack cycling that was so tight there were
several crashes and gripping sprints to the finish line in the
run. Rhythmic gymnastics it wasn't.
Sheila Taormina of the U.S., who won a gold medal in the 4x200
freestyle relay at the '96 Games, led the Sydney triathlon by 36
seconds after the swim--which was "really brutal," according to
Zeiger, with "so many people fighting each other for the same
piece of water." But because Olympic triathlon rules allow
drafting on the bike leg, a pack of 15 riders finished the 40-km
ride together. On the 10-km run through the rolling Royal Botanic
Gardens and adjacent streets, Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland and
prerace favorite Michellie Jones of Australia pulled away from
Magali Messmer of Switzerland, who would get the bronze, and
Zeiger, who would finish an ecstatic fourth.
McMahon and Jones rushed toward the harbor together, and only in
the final 100 meters did McMahon put together a painful, grinding
kick to beat Jones by two seconds. "This will give me nightmares,
but I'm very proud just the same," said Jones, who was burdened
by the expectation that she would win Australia's first gold
McMahon's victory came three years after she gave birth to her
son, Dominic, and nearly left the sport. Upon her return to
training she broke with her Swiss coach and began working with
her husband, Mike, a native of North Sutton, N.H., who was a
modestly successful professional triathlete when she met him in
Hawaii in 1992. They were married in '97 and have lived in
Switzerland ever since.
Their goal was to beat Jones, a two-time world champ who is
ranked No. 1. When McMahon ran sprints in her hometown of Barr,
18 miles outside Zurich, she'd conjure up images of Jones to help
fight the pain. "Just go like hell--that's what I would tell
myself, and I would see Michellie in my mind," said McMahon after
her victory. "I said it at the finish today: Just go like hell."
If McMahon went like hell, men's winner Simon Whitfield of Canada
went to hell and back. The men's cycling leg, unlike the women's,
produced a late breakaway: Olivier Marceau of France and Conrad
(Caveman) Stoltz of South Africa tore loose from the pack and
began the run with a huge 56-second lead. Marceau quickly left
Stoltz behind, but he was caught by Stephan Vuckovic of Germany
with three kilometers to go. Whitfield, meanwhile, had barely
avoided a crash in the bike leg and started the run 68 seconds
behind Marceau. But Whitfield is a brilliant runner, and he
methodically swallowed the leaders, pulling within range of
Vuckovic only a minute after Vuckovic had passed Marceau.
As Vuckovic tore downhill in the last 1.5 kilometers, Lance
Watson, who is Whitfield's personal coach in Victoria, B.C.,
tried to gauge Vuckovic's lead. "I was counting
one-Mississippis," said Watson, "and when Simon got within two
seconds, I knew he would get him." Watson was confident because,
before leaving for Sydney, he had put Whitfield through a miler's
workout: A 20-minute tempo run followed by four 400-meter sprints
in 56 seconds. Whitfield obliterated Vuckovic in front of the
Opera House, winning by 13 seconds over the last 200 meters.
The Australians, who excel at the triathlon and had expected to
win several medals in the two events, got only Jones's silver,
but they own a small piece of Whitfield's gold as well.
Whitfield's father, Geoff, was raised in Sydney. He accepted a
scholarship to the University of Alberta when he was 21 and
subsequently took a job in Toronto, married and settled in
Kingston, Ont., where Simon grew up. But in the fall of 1992,
when he was 17, Simon moved to Sydney to enter Knox Grammar
School, the same British-style boarding school Geoff had
Simon spent four years at Knox, developing a love for Australian
culture and friendships with Australian triathletes. He still
spends the Canadian winter training in Sydney. "I'm deeply proud
of being Canadian," Whitfield said, "but I believe that much of
my competitive nature comes from being part Australian."