ITU Controversially Sets 2020 WTS Elite World Championship

After months of deliberation of how to deal with six months of race cancellations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the International Triathlon Union announced on August 25 that it would award the 2020 World Championship elite titles at a sprint distance race at Hamburg on September 5.

National governing bodies had been put on alert over the summer that the 2020 World Championships were under consideration for a September target date. However, the official announcement came with only 11 days formal notice to prepare visas, lodging and pre-race virus testing.

ITU World Triathlon President Marisol Casado offered an explanation for this unique turn of events which abandoned the recent method of selecting elite World Champions via a season-long points chase and reverted to a one-day standalone Championship race, a format that had been in place from 1989 to 1998.

“Athletes, coaches, National Federations and ourselves… We all know this has been and still is a very strange year with endless challenges, and that we need to make the best decisions humanly possible in the best interest of all concerned,” stated Casado. “We know that announcing that the World Championships title will now be contested at the only event left on the calendar and that there is little advanced notice of this announcement, is far from ideal. We want to assure you that it is not just the best option but the only option we have to give our athletes the chance to compete and showcase their best at this level. I really want to thank the organisers, the German Federation and the World Triathlon staff for their commitment and efforts to make this opportunity, under challenging circumstances, possible.”

In a media release, the ITU stated the decision was motivated by contractual obligations. “With Hamburg remaining as the only WTS event of the 2020 season, and following the World Triathlon Series current contractual obligations, the decision was made to award the World Championship Titles in this race, with the Mixed Relay World Championships also taking place in Hamburg on September 6.”

With one exception, Australia, Canada and New Zealand will not send athletes to the event. Natalie Van Coevorden of Australia is on the Hamburg World Championship elite women's start list. However, many national governing bodies took on the challenge of last-minute logistics, with the field set to include defending WTS champions Katie Zaferes of the U.S. and Vincent Luis of France.

While some have criticized the ITU for designating this event as a World Championship, and the sudden nature of the designation and scheduling, Zaferes has adapted and rolled with the changes.

“I am looking forward to the opportunity to compete in Hamburg, test my race fitness level and experience in-person, elite competition for the first time since the fall of 2019,” Zaferes told Slowtwitch. “USA Triathlon made arrangements to get tested for COVID-19 immediately before flying to Hamburg, and both USA Triathlon, ITU and the DTU have comprehensive plans in place to keep us safe and conduct a responsible race. While the World Championship designation was sudden, 2020 has been anything but predictable. Without Olympic qualification or ITU points on the line, I am focused on the opportunity to race vs. feeling any pressure from the championship designation.”

Top male contenders include Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee of Great Britain, Mario Mola and Fernando Alarza of Spain, Kristian Blummenfelt, Casper Stornes and Gustav Iden of Norway and Richard Murray of South Africa. U.S. men include Kevin McDowell, Matt McElroy, Eli Hemming, Seth Rider and Morgan Pearson.

Despite the loss of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the women’s field will also be relatively strong and will include Georgia Taylor Brown, Jessica Learmonth and Vicky Holland of Great Britain, Flora Duffy of Bermuda, Cassandre Beaugrand of France, Rachel Klamer of Netherlands, Laura Lindemann of Germany and Claire Michel of Belgium. In addition to Zaferes, U.S. women racing are Renee Tomlin, Taylor Spivey, Summer Rappaport, and Erika Ackerlund.

As with other major sports, the ITU has prepared extensive safety precautions. “The health and safety of all the athletes is our first priority, and keeping that in mind, we will make every effort to deliver a great event and crown the World Champions,” said Casado.

USA Triathlon had been in contact with their elite triathletes over the summer to alert them to a possible World Championship. “USA Triathlon began surveying our U.S. National Team athletes early in the summer to gauge interest in racing, and all were interested depending on factors such as travel restrictions and length of any potential quarantine requirements,” said John Farra, USA Triathlon High Performance General Manager. “In general, our athletes have been able to accommodate their training and adapt during this difficult time, although in most cases they were unable to be with their normal training squads.”

Farra added that Medical safeguards will be extensive: “This includes guidelines for physical distancing and face mask use. There are also temperature checks and a requirement for each athlete to have a medical certificate signed off by a medical professional. The venue is fenced in with no spectators permitted, and only one staff member or coach is allowed into the venue for each race."

USA Triathlon officials were alerted early in the summer but were not consulted directly about the decision.

“We are aware that the ITU consulted with the ITU Coaches Committee & Athletes Commission about Hamburg many times over the past several months to discuss the options that might present themselves during this unusual time. We were not consulted directly as a federation, but we were included in ITU Surveys to understand conditions in each nation.”

USA Triathlon officials did support all their athletes in the application process, said Farra. “USA Triathlon aims to support the athletes—who have all voluntarily chosen on their own to race—to the best of our abilities. Their safety is our absolute foremost priority. Once many of them self-nominated for the Hamburg event, and 10 were included on the start list, we helped them navigate the process of gaining entry into Germany. This turned out to be a matter of proper invitations being extended to triathletes who are considered professionals by the German government and who are then permitted to enter the country with the proper documentation. Germany permits entry with no quarantine if the traveler tested negative for COVID-19 within 48 hours of arrival. USA Triathlon has arranged for a test to be administered for each athlete immediately prior to travel.”