Jonny and Alistair Brownlee have sights set on Tokyo
Tokyo would be the Brownlee brothers’ last Olympic Games, they suspect, and after a decade of sibling rivalry at the top of the sport the dynamic has finally shifted a little. There’s a brief pause when asked who has the upper hand right now, as if waiting for the other to answer, before Jonny’s grin finally breaks into laughter. “I’d like to think me, I hope so.”
Alistair had always been the senior athlete in age and in competition, winning double Olympic gold and even memorably once giving up victory to haul his younger brother over the finish line when Jonny suffered heat stroke. But Ali has spent the past few years competing in Ironmans while Jonny was dedicating himself to completing his set of Olympic medals – after bronze and silver from London and Rio, he desperately wants gold this summer. Now 33, Ali expects he will be the one in his brother’s shadow this time around. “Doing long distance racing and being a couple of years older is not working in my favour,” he admits.
First, Ali must qualify for Tokyo. His decision earlier this year to attempt to reach his fourth Games was bold after lengthy time away from competitive triathlon, and he still requires a standout performance at this weekend’s World Series event in Leeds to earn his place. While Jonny pulled away from the field to win a sprint event in Sardinia last weekend, Ali struggled. He is unlikely to oust British No2 Alex Yee from Team GB’s line-up meaning he will need to outperform third in line, Tom Bishop, while hoping Bishop still goes well enough to earn Briton an all-important third spot in Tokyo.
It is a muddy picture, and the simple reality is that the Yorkshire brothers’ home race on Sunday is the last opportunity for Ali to show he deserves to be on the plane. “It’s going to be a big race for me to show that I’m fit enough and in a place to hopefully be able to win a medal [in Tokyo],” he says, speaking from Leeds ahead of the race at the resurfacing of a popular cycling route using recycled materials with sponsor Volvo. “I haven’t been given a target, it’s just about having the best race I possibly can.”
Preparation for both Ali and Jonny has not been easy. Triathlon training is just about as incompatible as it gets when it comes to a pandemic. When coronavirus began to spread they rushed home from America wary of a disease which attacks the lungs. “Right at the start when no one quite understood the extent of how virulent and dangerous it was I think we were both worried by the stories affecting young people and long Covid,” Ali admits. “Once we understood our risk was relatively low then our main concern was not catching it and most importantly transmitting it to risky people like our grandparents.”
Ali spent much of lockdown swimming in an endless pool in his garage and cycling in his living room, racing for sanity as much as fitness. “I used Zwift where you’re competing against people all around the world in races, so that was the only competitive thing I did for months on end last year which pretty much kept going.”
When the world began to open up and racing resumed, an ankle injury disrupted his progress. Jonny meanwhile was able to compete and recently went racing in Japan, where he got a taste of what a Tokyo Games held in a pandemic might be like. “From an athlete point of view it will be a very, very different Olympics, and I realise that now,” he says. “You stay in your hotel, you do your race and you go home. All the other stuff – the opening ceremony, seeing other athletes, being part of the Village, the aftermath where you do amazing things, I remember meeting Prince Harry, photoshoots with Chris Hoy on top of a building – all that’s going to be removed.”
Perhaps this summer, then, won’t be so much about the pride and passion of a home games in London or the experience of Rio de Janeiro but instead the cold reality of competition. With the change in sibling status does Jonny feel pressure to become an Olympic champion too? “The absolute aim for me is to get a gold medal in Tokyo, complete my set, that’s why I really want to do. I think the delay has actually helped me because I had a few niggles and it’s allowed me to have a year of consistent training. It will be my last Olympic Games, I won’t be on an Olympic startline after this, so I’ll give everything I can to win gold.
“Whether it’s a career-defining moment, I don’t know. Up to the race in Japan [last month] I wasn’t too optimistic it could happen but now I really believe it’s going to happen. I’m going to definitely spend the coming weeks doing everything I possibly can. I am very lucky that London 2012 was my first Olympic Games because I’m not going to experience that pressure ever again. That felt like the career-defining moment for me, my home Olympics. I see Tokyo not as career-defining but as a good way to finish.”
Whether Ali will be there with him remains to be seen. His fate rests on that crucial race in Yorkshire this weekend and, for once, proving he can keep up with his brother.
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