In the magnificent setting of Fort Copacabana, the Rio 2016 triathlon competitions produced some brilliant displays of all-round athleticism. Just as at London 2012, Alistair Brownlee won gold in the men’s event and was joined on the podium once again by his younger sibling Jonathan. In the women’s event, favourite Gwen Jorgensen of the USA outraced the Swiss reigning champion Nicola Spirig.
Alistair Brownlee became the first triathlete in history to retain an Olympic crown, while his younger brother Jonathan upgraded the bronze he won at London 2012 to silver. Further back, South Africa’s Richard Murray, who was nearly 90 seconds behind after the 40km cycling leg, almost produced one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic triathlon history as he fell just six seconds short of a podium place behind compatriot Henri Schoeman, who took the bronze.
The eventual winner was never far from the front. Sitting in fourth place after completing the 1.5km sea swim in 17 minutes 24 seconds, he moved up to second after the 38.49km bike leg, which he flew through in 1:13:52.
The four-lap 10km run was controlled by the Brownlee brothers. France’s Vincent Luis initially attempted to keep pace with the Britons over the first few kilometres but fell away before finishing in seventh place. At the front, Alistair then eased himself away from Jonathan and ran the final lap out on his own. Cheered on by an impressive crowd, he finished in 1:45:01, six seconds ahead of his little brother. At the finish line, the Brownlees collapsed side-by-side beyond the finish line and warmly congratulated each other.
Alistair finished a full six seconds ahead of Jonathan, but it might have been much more if the older brother had not taken the time to bask in his triumph. Slowing down as he approached the finish line, he turned back to see where his brother was with a huge smile across his face. “I was confident,” he explained. “We pushed ourselves to the limit in training. I knew that I’d increased the gap at the end so I slowed down a bit to really make the most of it.
“It’s fabulous, we wanted the gold and silver in London in 2012 and this time we’ve pulled it off,” continued Alistair. “When Jonny crossed the line, I said to him, ‘We’ve done it’. We’ve both gone through some tough times and we’ve been pushing each other to the max. To see your little brother come over the line a few seconds after you is phenomenal. It’s so satisfying. In London, I was seen as a dead cert and they were giving me the medal before I started. My main feeling afterwards was relief. I can enjoy this one so much more.”
Schoeman, meanwhile, managed to hold off fellow South African Murray to finish 42 seconds behind the winner and grab the third spot on the podium. “You can't beat the feeling of having a medal around your neck,” he said. “I'm excited and proud, I've made Africa proud. Believe it or not, a week ago I had a fever but the doctor gave me the all-clear. Maybe having that extra rest gave me an extra bit in reserve.”
All-conquering Jorgensen outsmarts reigning champion Spirig
Unbeaten in two years, reigning double world champion Gwen Jorgensen of the USA was the clear favourite for gold in the women’s triathlon. However, having put together a run of 17 consecutive victories between 26 April 2014 and 9 April 2016, chinks in her armour started to appear in the build-up to Rio, as she suffered two defeats in short succession.
Jorgensen was virtually unbeatable in the running section – as she had demonstrated in Leeds (GBR) in June when she managed to win by nearly a minute despite trailing by 1 minute 45 seconds after the cycling section. So her rivals knew they would have to build up a lead on the 40km bike leg to have any chance of beating her in Rio.
Much to her rivals’ dismay, the American managed to keep pace with the frontrunners throughout the cycle. “I knew they were going to try to break away from me on the bike section,” she said. “I didn't want to be in that situation where I had to claw back time.”
From there, there was never any doubt and Jorgensen finally crossed the line 40 seconds ahead of Spirig and 45 secs ahead of Great Britain’s Vicky Holland in third. Reigning champion Spirig actually managed to match Jorgensen over the first few kilometres of the run. However, at the 8km mark, the American produced a burst of pace that took her clear and allowed her to run up the finishing chute with a beaming smile.
Her victory left her overcome with emotion. “I keep crying for some reason, I’m so happy after everything we’ve done these last four years,” said Jorgensen. “I knew if I kept doing what I've been doing, hopefully it would work out.”
Jorgensen’s performance was hailed in many quarters as near perfect, though she herself was quick to dismiss such plaudits: “I never think you have a perfect race,” she said. “Nicola [Spirig] was playing some games and it was fun to do that. Hopefully it made it more exciting for the fans too.”
During the run, Spirig allegedly said to her rival “I have a medal and you don’t!” Commenting on their exchange, Jorgensen said: “She did say that and she was absolutely right. Now she has two medals and I only have one.”
Spirig offered a slightly different take on the mid-race conversation: “She was leading first and then she left me in front and I was leading in the headwind,” she explained. “There was a bit of mind games. In the third lap nobody wanted to go out in front. I said ‘Go on, Gwen!’ and she replied saying ‘I was in front earlier’. So I came out with ‘I already have a medal so obviously it’s your turn to do the work’. It was just some mental games. In the end she was stronger and faster.”
Further back, Holland and her fellow and flatmate Briton Non Stanford led the hunt for bronze and produced a sprint to the finish, with Holland just taking it.