Triathlon: Docherty hears the call of London


By Andrew Alderson

Triathlon has just 27 days to face up to its biggest challenge since the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The country's best male triathletes - Bevan Docherty, Kris Gemmell, Ryan Sissons, Clark Ellice, Tony Dodds and James Elvery - line up on the old Olympic course in Beijing for the world championships grand final on September 10. They need a top eight place to guarantee a spot for the London Games. If none is secured, the selection will come down to the world championship series event in April at Sydney.

The triathlon high performance programme will receive $1.585 million of taxpayer investment this year; part of $6.155 million over the 2009-12 Olympic cycle. That money has seen only Andrea Hewitt qualify with her sixth place in the women's event last weekend.

In London last weekend, a top 10 finish was required for the men to get there, yet Bevan Docherty performed best in 15th. Hewitt and Docherty permanently train at bases outside New Zealand - Hewitt with her top triathlete partner and coach Laurent Vidal in France and Docherty in California. Docherty seems the only male chance of an Olympic medal. It is a considerable stride from the halycon day at Athens in 2004 when Hamish Carter won gold and Docherty silver - or even four years later in Beijing with Docherty's bronze. An athlete of his class is yet to emerge from the shadows in the next generation.

Broadcaster Mark Watson ran the TNZ's high performance programme in the south of France for three years. He resigned from the TNZ board last year in frustration at what he says was the elite arm of the sport needing to change its approach.

"They're over-staffed and over-researched but not enough is spent on coaches. There is too much ticking boxes to appease Sparc. There is no longer an utter desire to commit; often the greatest test to reach the top is adversity and we're doing everything but wipe their arses.

"Our athletes are being introduced to world championship series and world cup races in Europe too early; without knowing how to race regularly and win in Australasia."

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National coach Greg Fraine has been with the team on the European campaign. He recognises it is a grim situation where constructive solutions are hard to come by.

"It is gutting; we're not trying to hide that. Aside from Hewitt and Docherty, we have to consider whether any others are fast enough to be genuine Olympic medal prospects. It is probably going to mean manipulating the race and working as a team to shut down breaks. It might mean working for one athlete.

"If we continue the status quo, we can only keep hoping we're going to magically find the speed. The Beijing event will be the first opportunity to manipulate the race so Bevan can qualify."

Jack Ralston coached Carter for 15 years, has mentored dozens of athletes to national titles and is the coach of Ellice. He says Docherty is the best men's hope but has problems with a team approach.

"The selectors are likely to have discretion over the third person they pick who could be used to interfere with the field. But, if they do that, is that person compensated for their efforts with a share of the gold medal? Team racing is not part of the sport.

"They need to work on their running speed. That is going to be the difference and there will be phenomenal pressure on homegrown heroes like Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee. My advice would be don't panic or change drastically. All you've got to do is tweak."

Ralston's biggest issue for ongoing development is the lack of support for coaches: "No-one will speak up because no-one wants to bite the hand that feeds. You get the danger of a herd of people with their noses in the trough. I'd love an accountant do an in-depth analysis of where the Sparc funding is spent. Once you group in the bio-mechanists, nutritionists and psychologists, there is not enough left for coaches."

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