Alistair Brownlee thinks about legacy. Not in a heavy, intense way, because that’s not really his thing, but more in the context of what a few friends are saying.
It has to do with that day in Mexico. The one five years ago when his little brother lost himself to heatstroke in the last 700 meters of a triathlon and Alistair appeared out of nowhere and carried him over the line.
The one who has three million views on various clips on YouTube. As Alistair puts it, their friends have a punch line that goes something like this: “You’re basically famous for waddling across a finish line together.”
Alistair Brownlee won gold in Rio, while Jonny took silver, but only Jonny made it to Tokyo
Except it’s not always the friends. Sometimes Alistair goes there too. “I like to shut him up a little bit about that,” he says. “Not much, but there will be a scenario, and I’ll say he might need me to help him. He’s taking it well.’
With that there is a small grin. That same shy grin we so often saw from the top of so many podiums from one of the greatest champions of British sport.
But now he’s done. Or at least done in an Olympic sense, because time has won again. At 33, with a tired body, Brownlee did not make it in Tokyo and he will not try to go to Paris, so his magnificent number has stopped at two gold medals.
It stung when he knew his game was up. He would have loved to get there – he broke a hip, calf and ankle to get it off, and he was a wreck when he showed up for a final qualifying game in Leeds a few weeks ago. But he went, he tried, he didn’t make it, and that part of his life was over.
The weirdest? He’s starting to get along pretty well. And fast too. “I can look at myself and know that I gave everything, which helps,” he says.
But there’s more, because finally, after almost a decade as an Olympic champion, he’s starting to allow a few thoughts.
Alistair’s book, Relentless, explores the secret to sporting success with a host of top athletes
“Pride isn’t a great emotion when you want to achieve something else,” he says. “You always look ahead, but then when you close a chapter, like I just did, I suddenly have some time to look back.
“I’ve been thinking a bit about 2005, do you know when London got the 2012 Olympics? Back then, as a teenager, I never thought I would compete, let alone win gold once and then two.”
There’s that smile again.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “It was great, really.”
And now it’s over to someone else, because for the first time since 2008, there will be a new winner on the top rung of the triathlon on July 26. That’s where the younger boy comes in in this conversation, because Jonny Brownlee is still going. Not for long, as he is 31 and he is sure that these will be his last Games. But his streak shows bronze in London 2012, silver in Rio 2016 and a dream for the biggest final of all.
“I think it’s clear what I want,” says Jonny, and we all know that.
Jonny Brownlee goes for gold in Tokyo after silver in Rio and bronze in London
Jonny Brownlee also thinks about legacy. Not in a heavy, intense way either, because that’s no more something for him than it is for Alistair.
He is happy with his fate and what he has achieved. The other stuff, like how some would present him as a boy trapped in a big shadow? He is not in the least offended because, as he puts it, “I’ve never been jealous of my brother – I’m just proud to be Alistair’s brother.”
And also because Olympic bronze and silver medals are quite a prize. That collection makes Jonny not the most decorated triathlete in Olympic history, though the more fascinating part of these Games is about whether he can finally take that one step higher.
It’s only when you talk to him that you can understand what gold would mean, or what it might feel like to just fall short, as the odds suggest he will.
“I don’t think I would be 100 percent happy with my Olympic career if I didn’t get a gold medal,” he says. “I’d be happy, but I’d feel like I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to.”
Alistair says Jonny has a shot at gold: ‘Going in as underdog is a good position for him’
There is a long pause.
“With that, the one thing I’ve learned about the Olympics, especially in the last few months, and looking back on it, is how much it’s about timing,” he says. If the 2012 Olympics had been two months earlier, Alistair would have been out with an Achilles tendon injury and a month later he would have been out with the removal of his appendix.
“In 2016, if it had been a year earlier, I had a stress fracture and Alistair had his ankle problem.
“It came in time well for me and Alistair in 2012 and 2016. I have to hope the timing is right for this one. I have a good feeling about that.’
That’s the biggie for Johnny. It’s because he doesn’t have the legs for a sustained campaign or season these days.
There was a time when he was the epitome of consistency, far more so than even his brother – he once had 45 consecutive elite-level podium finishes, stretching over London 2012 and his world title in the same year. In triathlon circles, that oeuvre is a source of pure amazement.
But now that the “older man” ranks seventh in the world, he’s playing a different game.
He can’t deliver over a season, but on any given day, when everything lines up, he thinks he still has enough to drop them all.
Alistair still jokes about helping Jonny cross the line when he suffered heat stroke in a 2016 race
For the past year, with all those two-hour sessions on a stationary bike in a conservatory he’s insulated and heated, his whole life has focused on peaking under the Tokyo sun on July 26.
“I remember when I was young and the first few times I went to the British team and the older guys said, ‘Just wait till you’re over 30 and this and that’, and I was like ‘whatever’, but it’s true,” he says.
‘That’s the stage I’m at. When I entered London and Rio it was different. Alistair and I were guys that people were chasing, while this time I feel like I’m the one trying to bridge a gap to become a medal candidate and looking for that peak performance.
“Looking back at London 2012, that was my 33rd podium race in a row and I finished 45. I should probably appreciate it a little more, but it’s harder now.
“You can’t come to a race now, do it right, go home, go one more time. Now it’s more about a plan and that’s the Olympics.”
Alistair’s Olympic days are over, but he wants to be elected to the athletes’ committee
His brother’s absence will hurt his chances from a tactical point of view, given their joint work over the years in the swimming and cycling to burn the numbers before the run.
But there was no surprise in little brother when big brother fell short.
“Because of all the injuries he sustained, he could barely run six months in advance,” says Jonny.
“Only Alistair would ever have started himself at Leeds – no one else ever thought he would. But that’s Alistair. It will be harder without him, but it would always be hard anyway. I know what to do.’
Alistair Brownlee laughs. These brothers have lived their lives in each other’s pockets, always close and always competitive.
“He went with a club on my head once when we were playing miniature golf,” says Alistair. ‘We weren’t even that young, 13 or 14. Family games Monopoly were a no-no, table tennis in the garden would be a war. Nowadays it’s just sport we participate in, but every morning dive turns into a competition.’
The heights they have propelled each other to on the Yorkshire Moors make their story one of the finest in British sport. For Jonny, it will soon be about the next step, not that the plans have progressed beyond the hope of joining his brother on the ironman scene.
“I should probably think about it some time,” he says.
Alistair’s book explores secrets of success through interviews with stars like Chris Froome
For Alistair, it’s more advanced. He has published a fascinating book, Relentless, which explores the secrets of sporting success through interviews he has conducted with the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ian Botham, Michael Johnson, Chris Froome and AP McCoy.
“What annoys a lot of them is the idea of ’genius,'” says Alistair. “Ronnie is very good at it. It’s a label that minimizes the hard work.’ Alistair and Jonny are rarely mistaken, and it is noteworthy that Alistair has quickly arranged a working reason to be in Tokyo, where he will immediately start campaigning for election to the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes Committee.
“Jonny has a good chance of a medal,” he says. “Going in as an underdog is a good position for him. “If he’s racing at 95 percent of his ability, that could be good enough. A third Olympic medal – legendary status, eh?’
For everyone but a few of their friends, it probably is.
Alistair Brownlee’s book, Relentless: Secrets of the Sporting Elite, is published by Harper Collins