Team GB win triathlon relay as Jonny Brownlee ends jinx and finally gets gold
The curse is over, the set complete. For nine long years, Jonny Brownlee has not dared touch his brother Alistair’s Olympic gold medals, because he feared it would jinx his own dream of reaching the highest step on the podium. But on a sweaty and entrancing morning at the Odaiba Marine Park, Jonny finally bounded out of his brother’s shadow and into history as Team GB won the first Olympic triathlon mixed relay by 14 seconds from the United States, with France third.
“Olympics? Completed it,” Brownlee said, the gold glittering around his neck adding to his individual bronze from London 2012 and silver medal from Rio 2016. “It feels absolutely amazing. It’s my third Olympics and I’ve finally got gold.”
“It’s also the first ever mixed team relay in triathlon so we’ve made history in that, too. It’s capped off my Olympic career amazingly.”
It was a thrilling race, with each athlete having to complete a 300m swim, 6.8km bike, and 2km run before tagging off to their next teammate, but Team GB were always in pole position.
Jessica Learmonth led them out and immediately put Britain into a group of four with the US, Germany and the Netherlands, who had a large lead over the field, before Brownlee took over. He pushed hard on the bike to extend the group’s lead, before going solo on the run to establish a 10-second gap.
With two individual silver medallists, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Yee, on the final two legs, the sense of excitement in the British camp was growing by the second. And so was the lead.
By the time Yee began the anchor leg with a 23-second advantage, gold looked in the bag. However France’s men’s world No 3 Vincent Luis had other ideas, riding like a man possessed on the bike to get on to Yee’s wheel.
These two had a particular history. Back at London 2012, Luis had been asked if he had any ideas to help a young British triathlete with talent – and decided to go the extra mile by sending him his Olympic kit. That athlete? Yee.
Yee, though, was not going to let sentimentality get in the way of a gold medal. The 23-year-old, who was faster than Mo Farah as a teenager and good enough to have competed for Britain at the European Athletics Championships aged 20, soon powered clear towards glory – and Team GB’s seventh gold of these Games.
But after jumping into the team’s arms in the finish, Yee then sought out Luis to thank him for his gesture nine years ago. As the Briton later explained: “I remember receiving a parcel from France and thinking it was really quite odd. But it was from Vince and he sent some of his Olympic kit. I was so young at the time and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this is really amazing.’
“He is someone that inspired me so much. Vince is one of the people I look up to the most in the sport. It was pretty special. He’s just a legend.”
Yee also insisted that he was fully in control, despite a momentary wobble when he was briefly headed by Luis on the bike. “I did panic a little bit,” he said. “But I’d had a lot of information around the course so I knew Luis was coming fast and he’d worked quite hard. And I knew I’d probably be able to get him on the run if I stayed with him on the bike.
“I also back myself to run well so I guess I played to my strengths and was a little bit cunning in a way but I’m really happy.”
Not everyone in the British team was quite as relaxed. As Learmonth admitted towards the end she was “slightly nervous” – adding: “I think the relay you’ve got a lot more pressure than in the individual.”
But this day, most of all, was about Brownlee the Younger finally getting the gold medal his talent has long deserved after more than a decade as one of the world’s elite triathletes.
It has been some ride. During that time the 31-year-old has been a world champion, Commonwealth champion, and – incredibly – finished on the podium in each of the 42 races he competed in between July 2010 and May 2014. He has also won two Olympic medals – although with the added sting of being pipped by his elder brother on both occasions. Now, though, he ends his Olympic triathlon career with the highest of highs.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Brownlee said. “If someone had said at the start of my international career I’d have three Olympic medals and three different colours I’d have taken that. It’s super-special.
“And the way we all raced was amazing. Jess set us up perfectly, we didn’t make any mistakes, we did everything as well as we could and Alex finished it off. To finally get a gold medal, I’m quite emotional.”
He wasn’t the only one. At the finish line, Alistair was waiting to welcome his brother into an exclusive gold medal club. “I know for a long time that Jonny’s wanted gold,” he told the Observer. “But he never wanted to touch my medals as he thought it was bad luck. It’s awesome for him and I’m really happy.” The sustained cheers from the Team GB entourage showed he was far from alone.