The depth of Australian triathlon was on show at the opening event of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, however Jake Birtwhistle, Matt Hauser and Aaron Royle couldn’t produce the run leg needed to threaten for a podium at Odaiba Marine Park.
The Australian trio were each within 15 seconds of the lead out of transition into the 10km run but despite never giving up they couldn’t produce the 10km run they had worked so hard for and dreamt about.
Birtwhistle was the best of the Australians in 16th, one minute and 28 seconds behind gold medallist Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway (1:45.04). Hauser was 24th, 2 min 31 secs behind the winner, and Royle was 26th (2.53).
Blummenfelt, 27, produced an incredible 10km run leg of 29 minutes 34 seconds, and a devastating surge two kilometres from the finish, to run away from silver medallist Alex Lee (GBR) and New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde. Blummenfelt who was 16th in Rio won by 11 seconds.
Birtwhistle was 36th out of the first transition from swim to bike and rode well to be in the right spot. But the Tasmanian couldn’t produce the flying run finish that saw him win silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and win gold at two World Triathlon Series events in 2019.
“Its gonna take a while to let the disappointment sink in, it’ll probably be three years of kicking myself until Paris,” the bitterly disappointed 26-year-old said.
“I didn't feel terrible on the run. I just wasn't good enough to go with the front, so I'll have to try again in a few years’ times.”
The two lap swim course and tight run course made it a physical swim and technical ride.
“I mean it was probably one of the roughest swims I've ever been in. I think that I have a broken nose, there was a stray foot. I mean, we were still close enough in touch to start the bike coming out of the swim.
“It was really hard to move up in the bike, I spent a lot of energy just trying to get towards the front, there’s not many opportunities to make your way through. It rewarded those that rode smart, picked their lines right. I stayed up the front to get myself every opportunity on the run.”
Hauser, also on Olympic debut, was best placed of the Aussies out of transition but not satisfied with finishing in the top half of the field.
“Overall, I’m proud but left wanting more,” the 23-year-old said.
“Credit to Jake, he got himself into a good position getting into T2 and into the run so he did a really good job and Aaron as well staying strong on the bike.
“On the run I tried to conserve a little bit on the first couple laps and my right hammy started to cramp up so I decided just to just to bring it back a little bit because I might have an important job to do on the relay come Saturday.
“On the swim I felt like I had a pretty good start off to the right, but then as it came close to the first buoy, I kind of got sandwiched and then pushed back through the group. And it always happens, you know, it's quite rough and it's bit like a Japanese subway out there. It's hustle and bustle and legs going everywhere and getting kicked in the face.
Royle, who was ninth in Rio, spoke about the Australians trying to work together.
Yeah, we had had a plan to try and have a good race as a team,” the 31-year-old from Wollongong said.
“And to be honest, I wish I could have done more but I did the best I could. I was able to contribute a few times to try and get our group up to that lead group on the bike. Once we're there it was almost survival mode and then come the run, it’s all I had and it wasn’t enough today.”
The race was drama packed from start to finish. The race had to be restarted after a camera boat blocked the entry of almost half of the 51 competitors into the water for the 1.5km swim. Half the athletes started the swim before being brought back to the pontoon and the race was safely restarted about 10 minutes later.
“I think for all of us, that's probably the first time that's ever happened,” Royle said. “I just had to laugh myself as we swam back to the pontoon, thinking that of all the races for that to happen in it had to be the Olympics.
“I figured they would recall the start, but until the boat actually comes and stops you, you don't want to stop. So I mean, apart from it probably being a little bit comical, it didn’t have an effect on anyone's race - I swam maybe 50 metres at most, I don't think anyone would say it had an effect on their race.”
Two hours later and behind the finish line there were bodies lying everywhere. The Norwegian world No.2 collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line and had to be helped into a wheelchair to leave the area.
One of the race favourites, Britain's Jonny Brownlee, was bidding for his third successive Olympic medal having won bronze in London and silver in Rio but had to settle for fifth while French world champion Vincent Luis finished 13th in the sweltering conditions.
Birtwhistle wasn’t worried by the heat and is looking ahead to the mixed relay.
“The conditions are fine, I guess that means our preparations worked because I think it‘s quite hot still. The organising committee has done like a lot to support us through these conditions - there was no point in that race where you went needing it a drink or needing anything and you weren't able to get it.
“We’ve got another chance in the relay on Saturday and we've got a great team I think so let's hope Australia can deliver on that day.”
Two of the men will be back with two of the women to contest the first Olympic mixed relay event on Saturday.
Hauser who has impressive sprint results is confident he’ll be right if chosen for the relay.
“We’ll aim to put our feet up for a few days, really rest and recuperate to get ready for Saturday’s mixed relay. Five days between is a good amount of time, just about making sure we’re ready to go.”
The Australian women of Ashleigh Gentle, Jaz Hedgeland and Emma Jeffcoat will have their chance on the same course on Tuesday morning from 7:30am (AEST).
Men's Individual Triathlon Finish Times - Australia
16th place - Jake Birtwhistle 01:46:32
24th place - Matt Hauser 01:47:35
26th place - Aaron Royle 01:47:57
See results: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Elite Men