What Will the 2021 Triathlon Season Look Like?

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The 2020 triathlon season has been the strangest we’ve ever seen, so what will the 2021 triathlon season look like? As a coach and race director who has been involved with the sport for eight years I wanted to share some thoughts (and speculations) on what 2021 will look like.

Will races go ahead?

Yes. As lots of events started happening late in 2020, I don’t currently see any reason why 2021 would be a complete washout. Not all events will go ahead, some race organisers didn’t survive 2020 so some events will disappear for good. The exact numbers and what that will look like we’ll find out in due time, but it depends on a wide range of factors.

But we have vaccines right?

In the last fortnight a number of highly effective vaccines have been announced, giving everybody hope that life can return to something resembling normal in the next six months. Whether these vaccines get approved, are free of side effects or enough can be manufactured to reach remote regions remains to be seen, but this is a massive boost. Here in the UK our government are forecasting the population could be immunised to the point where social distancing is no longer required by April. Even allowing for logistical issues, we should have a good rate of vaccination by summer.

Will I need a vaccine to race?

This is the big question no organiser wants to commit to this far out, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that to start with, probably. As the best vaccines are only 95% effective (which I should point out is still incredible), organisers will not want anyone who has a higher than usual risk of infection on their start line as the law of averages suggests there’s still an above average risk they’ll infect another person. As herd immunity starts to take effect from the majority of the public being vaccinated this may well be relaxed in time, but for the 2021 season I expect many organisers will be asking for proof of vaccination before you can take the start.

What if I can’t get vaccinated?

Most triathletes don’t qualify for “vulnerable” status and are under 60 so we’ll be towards the bottom of the list for immunisation. It may be that races will also accept a negative test result within the last 24 hours in lieu of a vaccination certificate to begin with if vaccinations are not available in your area, but once vaccines become widely available within each country, expect race organisers to take a harder line on this. If you’re unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, I imagine most race organisers will be able to waive this requirement.

What if I don’t want to get vaccinated?

It’s your right not to get vaccinated, but it’s also the event organiser’s right to potentially refuse entry to anyone who isn’t vaccinated. Hopefully within the next few years the virus will have been stamped out for the most part and proof of vaccination will no longer be required. Until then, you may have to sit on the sidelines or find races which allow unvaccinated athletes. National governing bodies may provide guidance on this, meaning organisers may not have a choice in the matter if they want a race license.

Will there be any spaces?

When countries around the world started locking down in spring 2020 race organisers started postponing events until the autumn, before rolling them into 2021 when it became apparent there was very little chance of the most events going ahead. As these events were rolled over, so were their entries, with all athletes registered for 2020 guaranteed places in the 2021 event. Not all of these athletes will take these places, some will have been so angry at the race organiser they refuse to have anything to do with them. Some will be unable to make the new date, some will simply have lost interest, but I estimate a take-up rate of roughly 60-70%. Even this low estimate means places in 2021 will be very limited, so it’s entirely possible that places at triathlons in 2021 will be hard to come by. 2020 was a tough year for event organisers, but they still had entry fees coming in for the events. Next year will be the real test as their income is slashed due to lack of places they can sell.

I hope organisers add extra dates (races on Saturday and Sunday for instance) or new events appear to provide more athletes with the chance to race, but there’s a chance next year will be very lean when it comes to available slots. If you’re on the fence about making the jump, I recommend you act now.

Will there be social distancing measures in place?

To start with, more likely than not. This may cause frustration for many who may have only been vaccinated to allow them to race, but when you consider how many athletes will live with immunosuppressed individuals who may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons, while the virus is still in heavy circulation it’s very likely sensible precautions will be taken to minimise transmission.

This all sounds a bit ominous, will racing ever return to normal?

Probably not in 2021, but you never know. It depends largely on the take-up of vaccines and the resulting infection rates. My inclination is that for as long as daily infection rates remain in the triple figures within most countries/states, that organisers will have to keep measures in place to minimise the spread. As important as triathlon is to us, racing is ultimately a privilege, and we can’t expect to receive special treatment because of how hard we trained.

Conclusion

As events went ahead in 2020 while no vaccines were available and daily deaths were in the thousands globally, I can say with confidence that races will be going ahead in 2021 in some shape or form. Whether your event will go ahead, you’ll need a vaccination or what the format looks like none of us can say, but by the time these details become clear you’ll likely be out of time to train for your event from nothing, so I recommend you take a leap of faith and act as if they’re going ahead.

All predictions made in this article were made on the 27th November 2020, and are purely speculative