Twelve years ago I watched the women’s triathlon at the Sydney Olympics on TV. I was cheering for Anja Dittmer, born not far from my hometown in Neubrandenburg, who finished in 18th place. It was the sport’s Olympic debut, the first triathlon I’ve ever seen and really good fun to watch.
Three years ago I went along to see the first triathlon World Cup race held at London’s Hyde Park in preparation for the Olympics. That year the women’s and men’s races were held in quick succession on the same day and we were fortunate to see the world’s best triathletes in action. We managed to stand right by the transition zone and saw the changeovers at close hand. This was a great insight into the sport and made me appreciate the level of precision required to ensure that no time is wasted in transition.
Like other Olympic road events, the main part of the triathlon route was open to the public whilst ticket holders watched from a large stand overlooking the transition zone and the finish line. We hadn’t tried to get tickets, but when a friend told me that she thought about going to watch the women’s race, I decided to join her. We looked at the route and thought we would try to get a place on the Serpentine bridge to get a glimpse of the swim and be close to the cycling and running route. It was the morning of Super Saturday with the race starting at 9am. When we got to the park just before 8 o’clock, the route was already quite busy. It turned out that the bridge was actually closed to the public. We decided to sacrifice the chance to see anything of the swim for a place in the front row just outside the Serpentine Gallery.
Despite the early morning the atmosphere was really good. A group of Games Makers were busy setting up one of the refreshment areas for the race. Two police officers cycling along the route were greeted with huge cheers. The fences along the route were soon sporting a wide range of flags from all over the world and people were chatting to strangers about their Olympic experience. I put my German flag over the fence in support of Anja Dittmer in her fourth Olympics, the only competitor in the race who participated in all Olympics since Sydney.
The Olympic triathlon distance is 1500m swimming, 43km cycling and 10km running. The athletes cycled past us seven times and as we were standing near a U-turn of the running route, we saw the athletes eight times during the run. There was no commentary in the park but people around us were keeping up with the action via radios and mobiles. A big cheer went up when the athletes approached for the first time. A large group including all the favourites was followed by a second group a couple of minutes behind. My camera’s sport programme proved very handy as it allowed me to take a series of shots when the riders came into view.
Every time the leading group came past, we checked that British medal hope Helen Jenkins, Anja and the other favourites were still hanging in there. It had been raining overnight but we didn’t realise that the riders had some difficulties with the road conditions at the start of the bike race, although we noticed one or two riders at the back of the field who looked like they must have crashed. I only heard later that there had been a series of bad crashes on the slippery roads in front of Buckingham Palace.
Nobody managed to break away at the front during the bike ride. Soon after the riders had gone past on their last cycling lap, we heard from the American couple next to us that Anja was leading at the transition from bike to running, although only by a few seconds! However, by the time the first runners came into view, she had already been caught. Throughout the four laps a leading group of six emerged, including Helen Jenkins, Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden from Sweden. The noise was deafening every time they came past, no more than a couple of metres away from us.
As soon as the leaders went past us for the last time, everyone made their way to a large screen nearby to watch the finish. In the short time that it took us to get over there, Helen Jenkins had lost contact to three of the others. This made for quite a strange atmosphere as we all realised that an almost certain British medal was suddenly out of reach. Everybody was screaming at the screen when we saw Spirig get slightly ahead before Norden almost caught her in an amazing sprint finish. I have no idea where they found the energy for that sprint at the end of almost two hours of racing!
Anja finished twelfth in the end. Her run was hampered by cramps and a blister on one of her feet. Although she wasn’t able to finish her Olympic career with a medal, she has been a great ambassador for the sport.
Once the race was finished and the crowd slowly dispersed, I made my way towards the Serpentine where I managed to get a glimpse of the big stand across the water and even spotted the victory ceremony through my zoom lense. By the time I got back to Hyde Park Corner, Games Makers were already taking the barriers down to re-open the main sections of the park. Another example of Olympic efficiency!