Rio 2016 Olympic Triathlon: How Far Do Triathletes Swim, Run, And Cycle? An Introduction To This Summer’s Olympic Triathlon

A guide to the rules and terminology of Olympic triathlon, as well as a history of previous medal winners.

Pictured: The Olympic Triathlon will be one of the most physically demanding events at Rio 2016.

Everyone knows that triathlons, and adventure races in general, are some of the most physically demanding events in the world of sport. Olympic triathlons are, of course, no exception to this idea. Long-distance running, swimming, and cycling – all tied up into one epic struggle to finish on the podium and win a medal. The athletes, going for gold in the Rio 2016 triathlon, will have fitness levels that shoot off the top-end of the chart.

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This summer’s Olympic Games, hosted by Rio de Janeiro, are now almost upon us. The men’s triathlon event is scheduled for the 18th of August, and the women’s triathlon is scheduled for the 20th of August. The event, that made its Olympic debut at Sydney 2000, will be taking place out of Rio de Janeiro’s Fort Copacabana. There will be a 1.5km swim, a 40km cycle, and a 10km run. The reigning champ in the men’s triathlon is Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee, for the women it’s Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig (who famously edged out Sweden’s Lisa Nordén in a remarkable photo finish at London 2012).

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Rio 2016 Triathlon – Rules

The Olympic triathlon is split into three stages – swimming, cycling, and running.


Competitors in the Olympic triathlon all start together, before rushing into the water and swimming a 1.5km course marked out by buoys. The triathletes are not limited in terms of swimming stroke, and can make their way through the water using a style of their choosing.


Following the 1.5km swim, the Olympic triathletes at Rio 2016 will ditch their goggles and swap their swimming caps for cycling helmets. They’ll then compete against each other in a 40km bike race.


The last stage of the Olympic triathlon is a 10km run, with participants racing against each other in order to cross the line first. The first athlete to pass the finishing line is proclaimed the winner, with all of the Olympic glory that this entails.

Olympic Triathlon – Words and Phrases

Aero Position

This is the position that triathletes are often seen riding their bike in. The use of aero bars (a standard feature of triathlon bikes) means the competitor can rest their foremarms on the handlebar pads and assume a more aerodynamic position while cycling. This helps to prevent drag, and assists with the conservation of energy.


Bonking, don’t laugh, is the awful moment when a triathlete’s muscle glycogen stores run too low and a feeling of fatigue engulfs them. This is also known, more commonly, as “hitting the wall.”

Bottle Cage

A bottle cage is the rack on a triathlete’s bike, used for storing water (rehydration during a triathlon is, of course, vital).

Dolphin Diving

Dolphin dives are a series of short dives used by the triathletes to get through shore-bound waves, and out into open water. As swimming is the first event at an Olympic triathlon, a fast start made possible by dolphin diving can have a knock-on effect at the finishing line.


Used in cycling, drafting involves getting close behind the rider ahead of you in order to avoid wind drag. By minimising wind drag, a cyclist lowers the amount of effort needed to propel themselves forward. Drafting is quite a controversial subject in the world of triathlon, with sections of the rulebook dedicated to it.

Draft Zone

A draft zone is an invisible rectangular area two metres wide and ten metres long that surrounds each triathlete’s bicycle. The draft zone’s longest sides run back from the leading edge of the front wheel, with the short sides run horizontally across the edge of the front wheel.

If a cyclist enters another cylist’s draft zone during a triathlon, they must pass within 20 seconds or risk being penalised. Sitting behind someone else’s wheel and making no effort to pass can result in penalty action being taken.


A taco is a term used to describe a bent wheel (that looks like a taco).


Transitions are the moments in a triathlon when the triathlete changes from swimming to cycling, and cycling to running. T1 is the period of time between swim and bike, while T2 is the period of time between bike and run. A smooth transition can make the difference between winning and losing in an Olympic triathlon event.

Washing Machine

The waters at the beginning of an Olympic triathlon can get seriously choppy. Swimmers can feel like they’re swimming in a “washing machine.”

Wicking Material

A material that’s usually made of a poly blend fabric. It does not absorb sweat in the way cotton does, and actually shifts it away from the skin. This is very useful for triathletes as they tend to sweat quite a bit.

Olympic Triathlon – Medal Winners

Sydney 2000 – Men’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Simon Whitfield (CAN)
  • Silver – Stephan Vuckovic (GER)
  • Bronze – Jan Řehula (CZE)

Athens 2004 – Men’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Hamish Carter (NZL)
  • Silver – Bevan Docherty (NZL)
  • Bronze – Sven Riederer (SUI)

Beijing 2008 – Men’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Jan Frodeno (GER)
  • Silver – Simon Whitfield (CAN)
  • Bronze – Bevan Docherty (NZL)

London 2012 – Men’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Alistair Brownlee (GBR)
  • Silver – Javier Gómez Noya (ESP)
  • Bronze – Jonathan Brownlee (GBR)

Sydney 2000 – Women’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Brigitte McMahon (SUI)
  • Silver – Michellie Jones (AUS)
  • Bronze – Magali Messmer (SUI)

Athens 2004 – Women’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Kate Allen (AUT)
  • Silver – Loretta Harrop (AUS)
  • Bronze – Susan Williams (USA)

Beijing 2008 – Women’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Emma Snowsill (AUS)
  • Silver – Vanessa Fernandes (POR)
  • Bronze – Emma Moffatt (AUS)

London 2012 – Women’s Triathlon

  • Gold – Nicola Spirig (SUI)
  • Silver – Lisa Nordén (SWE)
  • Bronze – Erin Densham (AUS)

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