Triathlon tests Rio's Olympic readiness

Mr Alistair Brownlee of Britain starts running after the swimming leg of the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 2.
Mr Alistair Brownlee of Britain starts running after the swimming leg of the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 2.PHOTO: REUTERS
Athletes compete in the swimming leg of the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Athletes compete in the swimming leg of the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Javier Gomez Noya of Spain leads a pack of riders during the bike portion in the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Mr Javier Gomez Noya of Spain leads a pack of riders during the bike portion in the men's triathlon at the ITU World Olympic Qualification event on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AFP) - Elite triathletes from around the world raced off Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach Sunday in a dress rehearsal for next year's Olympic Games.

The event was vital for athletes looking to secure spots on their national Olympic teams but just as much a test of the city's ability to stage the world's biggest sporting event in exactly 12 months.

With Rio's iconic Sugarloaf Mountain towering in the background, competitors raced across the sand of Copacabana and dived into low surf for the swimming stage of the gruelling event before switching to bicycles, then finally a foot race.

American star Gwen Jorgensen won the women's contest, as expected, beating a field of 56, with Britons Non Stanford and Vix Holland taking silver and bronze.

In the men's competition, reigning Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee of Britain was a favourite, alongside Spain's Javier Gomez, silver medalist in the 2012 London games.

The race was also an opportunity to look at Rio's readiness for next year's Olympics.

Staged on Rio's most popular beach during a weekend, the triathlon put athletes and the public in close contact, while the cycling and running courses required the shutting down of normally busy streets.

"Being an outdoor sport, being on the sea and being on the streets, it's really important for us to see that if it works on paper it also works in reality as well," said Gergely Markus, sports director at the International Triathlon Union.

Hundreds crowded the barriers to watch the competitors, while many hundreds more took up their habitual Sunday posts on the curving sand beach, some going for dips in the ocean just a stone's throw from the lane reserved for the athletes.

With the broad seafront avenue mostly sealed off for racing, the throng of coconut water vendors, skateboarders, bodybuilders, bikini-clad sunbathers and dog walkers who typically rule this stretch of Rio were forced to jostle for space.

But in a good sign for Rio's 2016 sporting party, no one was grumbling.

"It's an event taking place in the streets, so it's bound to be a bit messy, especially in Rio de Janeiro," said Mr Raer Souza, a trim 78-year-old with a white mustache. "But it's good for Rio," he said.

The only thing he'd change? The thumping music.

"I just wish they put on more samba," he said.

Pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay, where sailing events are set to take place, is described by independent environmental experts as a disaster. The situation is much better in the open sea off Copacabana Beach but even there the quality is suspect, according to environmentalists.

Tests done this week by Rio authorities found one spot several hundred metres from the triathlon swimming lane to be unsafe. However, it cleared up in time for the race, an official from the Rio2016 organising committee said.

Athletes said they were unconcerned by the levels of pollution.

"This doesn't worry me at all," Brazilian competitor Pamella Oliveira told journalists Friday.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of tourists who go swimming every day. I myself have bathed here a million times and haven't had a problem."

Mr Brownlee also shrugged off the reports. "I'm certainly no stranger to dirty water. I think I've swum in a lot worse," he said.