Patrick Burke

The Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games has the feel of a watershed moment for mass participation at major sporting events. As well as the well-documented ambitious Opening Ceremony plans along the River Seine, organisers are seeking 20,024 runners to complete a marathon on the same day and on the same course as the elite race.

One Olympic sport fiercely proud of its rich history and reputation of staging mass participation events is triathlon. The three-day festival-like season finale in Abu Dhabi offered a fine example of how the elite, the ambitious and the casual competitor can be brought under one roof.

The World Triathlon Championship Finals, held at a later date than usual because of the United Arab Emirates' capital's fierce heat, featured age group races ranging from 15 to 19 up to the over-85 bracket, individual Para triathlon events, as well as a first-ever mixed relay, and of course the elite women's and men's races which drew big crowds to the Yas Bay Race Village. 

The Race Village that was home to thousands of athletes of a variety of ages and speeds from the Opening through to the Closing Ceremonies.

As an avid parkrunner, the biggest compliment I can deliver to the delivery of the event is that it felt to me like a huge Parkrun atmosphere. For those that aren't aware, Parkruns are a series of free, community-led five-kilometre races inviting participants to run, jog or walk their way to the finish line. 

In the United Kingdom, there are more than 1,100 events running every Saturday - at 9am in England, although 9.30am in Scotland as I recently discovered from my colleague Michael Houston. Having begun in London in 2004, Parkrun now features events in 22 countries, and - speaking from personal and family and friend experience - forms an integral part of people's weeks.

Organisers have done a remarkable job of creating a sense of community and delivering an event vital for participants' wellbeing. Indeed, its work has been recognised through a partnership with World Athletics which began in 2020, and it was referenced in a panel discussion on the "benefits of events" at the Host City 2022 Conference and Exhibition that I attended in Glasgow earlier this month.

I digress slightly because that community spirit was comparable to that evident throughout the Championship Finals. Athletes of all ages were able to compete on the same stage and as part of the same festival as Bermuda's Flora Duffy and France's Léo Bergère, who were crowned world champions in dramatic fashion.

Much of the healthy crowd for both elite races comprised of those who had already competed or were about to race in their age group.

That sense of community was noted by Marisol Casado, the World Triathlon President since 2008, when I caught a word with her after the Closing Ceremony.

Age group races at the World Triathlon Championship Finals in Abu Dhabi were held for athletes ranging from 15 to 19 up to the over-85 brackets ©World Triathlon
Age group races at the World Triathlon Championship Finals in Abu Dhabi were held for athletes ranging from 15 to 19 up to the over-85 brackets ©World Triathlon

"For us it is a tradition," she told insidethegames. "We can see that more and more sports are following the same path, because it is very interesting. 

"Our sport has what I call active fans, which are the age-groupers who came also to see the elite races, and they also compete. I think this is a very good combination."

Paris 2024's marathon plans also drew reference from the Spanish official, who is also an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, and she is hopeful that a triathlon event on a similar scale could feature at Los Angeles 2028.

"In the Olympics, I think we are really happy with the new medal event, the mixed relay," Casado added.

"People really love it.

"We are thinking something about Los Angeles. Paris is closed, but we are going to [try for] LA to have a mass participation event as they are going to have with the marathon in the streets of Paris.

"We have also some ideas, maybe with cross-country triathlon or something, that maybe in some places can fit."

Clearly it is no small task delivering a mass participation competition alongside a multi-sport event on the scale of the Olympic Games and the demands it places on the host city. However, with a race village set-up already in place, triathlon would appear well-suited to fulfilling such an idea.

World Triathlon President Marisol Casado hopes for a mass participation triathlon event to feature at Los Angeles 2028 ©World Triathlon
World Triathlon President Marisol Casado hopes for a mass participation triathlon event to feature at Los Angeles 2028 ©World Triathlon

As a sport, triathlon remains a relative newcomer. What was then the International Triathlon Union was only founded in 1989, with the sport added to the Olympic programme from Sydney 2000. Para triathlon then joined the Paralympics in Rio 2016, and is set to double its number of athlete quota places from those Games to 120 at Paris 2024.

It has great potential, with an already well-established participant base across the age groups as was evident in Abu Dhabi. On top of that is a group of keen swimmers, cyclists and runners who could surely, with a little encouragement, combine their biggest passion with the other three elements of the sport. While the swim leg would undoubtedly be my weakest, I can certainly put a personal goal on record to work towards being able to complete this true endurance test.

One of the challenges from triathlon in the coming years would be whether it can continue its growth while retaining that family-like feel at events. Drama like we witnessed over the three days of the Championship Finals can only enhance the sport's popularity.

It was a true privilege to be there to watch Duffy and Bergère earn their World Triathlon titles.

The women's race was viewed as a head-to-head between Britain's Georgia Taylor-Brown and the Olympic, World and Commonwealth Games champion Duffy. On the first two laps on the run, it was going exactly to script, with the pair neck-and-neck at the front. And then early on the third came the breakthrough for Duffy, who did not look back and went on to earn a record fourth world title.

France's Léo Bergère became men's world champion in dramatic fashion in Abu Dhabi ©World Triathlon
France's Léo Bergère became men's world champion in dramatic fashion in Abu Dhabi ©World Triathlon

As for the men's race, that 10-kilometre run goes down as one of the most dramatic sporting finishes I've ever witnessed. This one was expected to be between New Zealand's Hayden Wilde and Britain's Alex Yee for the overall title, but it was Bergère, deemed an outsider, who was the only one of the front three able to force themselves into the front group on the bike. 

It quickly became evident he was going to claim a first Championship Series win of the season, but the real drama was happening behind him.

After struggling on the first lap of the run, Wilde got it together and had himself into the fifth position he needed going into the final lap and through the final split. However, Australia's Matthew Hauser finished strongly to go past him, and eyes were then on Yee, who was neck-and-neck with Jelle Geens of Belgium to secure the third place that would have earned him the title.

And so within the last 400m, Bergère, Wilde and Yee all had their hands on the title. Ultimately, it was a scarcely believing Bergère - with a "perfect race" and a couple of favours from Hauser and Geens - who was crowned world champion.

With such drama and stars competing in the women's and men's Championship Series, the future of triathlon at the elite level looks secure and in a good place.

Mass participation remains a key element of the sport, and on the evidence of Paris 2024, it looks a route the IOC are interested in further exploring. Based on the evidence in Abu Dhabi, triathlon would appear a good match.