In Good Conscience

Brownlees take rare sporting gesture in their stride

The Brownlee brothers finished first and second in the Olympic Games triathlon event. Alistair retained the gold medal he won in London four years ago. His younger sibling Jonny moved up to silver.

This week, they took brotherhood to a dimension that will be remembered longer than any race they have swum, cycled and run.

Jonny led Sunday's final world championship event on the Mexican tropical island of Cozumel. But when he staggered and came to a confused halt, weaving and wobbling like a man struggling towards his last breath, two runners hunted him down.

One, a South African, Henri Schoeman, caught and passed the dehydrated and distressed Jonny to win the race.

The other, Alistair Brownlee, scooped up his sibling, hauled him by the arms and the waist, and literally pushed his younger brother across the line ahead of him.

"It was a natural human reaction," Alistair later said. "Not just to my brother, but for anyone I would have done the same thing.

British athlete Alistair Brownlee (left) helping his younger brother Jonathan across the line during the World Triathlon Championships in Mexico on Sept 18. "It was a natural human reaction," the older sibling said after the race.
British athlete Alistair Brownlee (left) helping his younger brother Jonathan across the line during the World Triathlon Championships in Mexico on Sept 18. "It was a natural human reaction," the older sibling said after the race. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"I've been in that position before, in London six years ago. I remember being in second trying to win the race and then waking up and being told I'd come 10th. I was like, 'Why didn't all those people who came past me help me out?'

Bookmakers, a less sentimental breed, reacted in their own way to the tide of public interest and sympathy. They slashed the odds on Alistair Brownlee becoming the 2016 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

"So I didn't give it a second thought. I just had to help him."

By the time Alistair, 28, the elder Brownlee by two years, had said that, Jonny was in hospital recovering from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

The world tuned in. The footage had gone viral. A breakfast TV host on the BBC said that she had watched it eight times, and cried eight times.

Bookmakers, a less sentimental breed, reacted in their own way to the tide of public interest and sympathy. They slashed the odds on Alistair Brownlee becoming the 2016 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

His price tumbled from 100-1 down to 6-1 on nine bookmaking websites.

By this weekend, only Andy Murray and Mo Farah remained ahead of Brownlee.

This might be a race to the line. The British public faces a glut of potential names after the 27 gold, 23 silver and 17 bronze medals that the Brits brought home from the Rio Summer Olympics, and the 64 gold, 39 silver and 44 bronze at the Paralympics.

The Paralympics were littered with tales of triumph over adversity. Britain is where the disabled meets began with the 1948 International Wheelchair Games; and nowhere is there greater funding to help those with the necessary will and commitment to go out into the world and compete.

So many achievers will make the BBC award - the accepted annual recognition in British sport - harder, not easier to determine.

It is decided by public vote, and the word "personality" might almost be exchanged for the word "popularity".

In terms of pure sporting accomplishment, Andy Murray might retain the sports personality award he won last year. Murray won Wimbledon and went on to become the first back-to-back Olympic tennis champion ever.

Mo Farah should, as the bookmakers see it, run Murray a close second. Farah became the second man in history - after Finland's Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976 - to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m at two consecutive Olympic Games.

Maybe the sentiment towards the Brownlees will pass. Maybe the wonder of mid-September will ebb towards December, when the votes are cast.

Yet something beyond the norm certainly took place in the 33 deg C heat and humidity in Cozumel.

There is a reason why the island attracts more scuba divers than people putting themselves through a 1,500m swim in the Caribbean Sea, a 40km bicycle race, and finally a 10km run to the finish.

"I think both of us are thinking this isn't really what you want to be remembered for," Alistair said. "Sport is a beast with two heads. You have to be the most massively competitive person, but then there is the room to do special things as well. It was literally a spur of the moment decision to do the right thing."

He also said, in the blunt northern England way of speaking, that his kid brother was "a flipping idiot" for not pacing it right and failing to win the race.

But while Jonny was being rehydrated in hospital, Alistair was questioning himself: "Did I do the right thing? Would my brother have received medical attention quicker if I'd let him lie? Is it the wrong thing to carry someone over the line?"

Not everyone thought it heroic, or permissible. Spain's Mario Mola was out there toiling in the hot sun. Mola needed to finish fifth, and to hope that Jonny Brownlee did not win, to be crowned the World Series champion over a year in which injury prevented Alistair Brownlee from competing in some triathlons.

Mola got his fifth place. By then, the Spanish federation had lodged an appeal.

It wanted Jonny disqualified for accepting assistance to get across the line.

And it had a point. Way back in 1908, Italy's Dorando Pietri was stripped of the Olympic marathon title. During an unusually hot day in London, Pietri, a pint-sized pastry chef, entered the White City stadium in a state that matched Brownlee's discomfort this week.

Pietri took the wrong direction and was redirected by marshals. He fell, five times, and was helped to his feet by officials and the medical director. Pietri crossed the line first in 2hr 54min 46sec, half a minute ahead of America's Johnny Hayes.

The US appealed; Pietri was disqualified. In some ways, the loser won. Queen Alexandra sent him a gilded silver trophy. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an account in The Daily Mail that sparked donations enabling Pietri to open a bakery in Italy.

Irving Berlin dedicated a song, Dorando, to the runner.

Today's TV presenter would have cried 15 times. And if there was an award like the sports personality back then, Pietri would have run away with it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2016, with the headline 'Brownlees take rare sporting gesture in their stride'. Print Edition | Subscribe