Jonny Brownlee gestured over his shoulder as he stood in the athletes’ pen at the Odaiba Marine Park with a gold medal hanging around his neck.
He pointed towards a bed of shrubs and said his brother Alistair had appeared out of them, as if by magic, to console him when he finished fifth in the men’s triathlon last week. Somehow, it seems Alistair has always been there to console him.
He was there when he won gold at the 2012 Olympics in London and Jonny won bronze. He was there at the 2016 Olympics in Rio when he won gold and Jonny won silver. He was there, famously, at the climax of the World Triathlon Series in Cozumel, Mexico, five years ago, when he propped Jonny up as he tottered in the heat and carried him over the line.
Jonny Brownlee had the fastest time out of all competitors as Team GB won mixed relay gold
Brownlee finally secured a gold medal to enjoy a bit of Olympic stardust himself
That is the way it has always been until now. Jonny has been showered with congratulations for everything he has achieved but, at the Olympics, the congratulations have always been laced with sympathy. When you are the second-best triathlete in your own family, it can be like a lead weight. But Jonny has always borne it easily and with grace.
Even on Saturday, he remembered the 2006 World Junior Triathlon Championships in Lausanne. Alistair won, Jonny crashed out on the first corner of the bike course. He recalled Rio, too, when he suggested to Alistair that they were so far clear of the field on the run they should conserve energy.
‘I said ‘Alistair, relax now, let’s just run this together’ and he saw that as ‘right, Jonny’s suffering so I’m going to attack him’.
Alistair attacked him. And Alistair won gold. Jonny grins at the memory.
There is no artifice about him. There is no resentment.
Jonny believes he would not be as successful if it wasn’t for the challenge posed by his brother
‘One of my proudest things in my triathlon career is the fact I have never had any jealousy towards Alistair,’ he said. ‘I have never looked up and thought ‘Why is he winning the gold medals, not me?’. I have just thought I was beaten by the better athlete. I wouldn’t have been as good an athlete if it wasn’t for him. I wouldn’t have trained as hard. I wouldn’t have believed I could do it.’
Jonny, 31, has lived contentedly in the shadow. Some have suggested he is the more gifted athlete but that Alistair, the elder brother who is here because he is running for election to the IOC Athletes Commission, has held a psychological edge.
Sometimes, Jonny mused, he might have shown a bit of ‘younger brother innocence’. Whatever the truth of that, the shadow was lifted after this gold.
Alistair was there to congratulate him after his stunning leg in the Triathon Mixed Relay event set up victory along with Jess Learmonth, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Yee. This time there was no need for caveats and no need for sympathy.
In his last Olympic race before concentrating on Ironman events over greater distances, Jonny had done it. He had a gold medal to go with his silver and bronze, a win that made him the most decorated triathlete in Olympic history.
‘It’s not like Alistair has been removed from this altogether,’ added Jonny. ‘I didn’t have the best start to my year. But Alistair actually played a big role in me being here in shape. He said ‘You can win an Olympic gold medal, you are fitter than you believe, better than you believe.
Alex Yee has won two medals in Tokyo and took up triathlon after watching Jonny in 2012
‘That meant a lot to me. I still train with him day in day out. But I think winning a gold medal and knowing it’s not his gold medal and he’s not part of the team is also important, because I’ve done it on my own.’
For many people, Jonny Brownlee winning gold is as good as it will get at these Tokyo Games — because of the modest, self- deprecating man he is.
In the first staging of the Mixed Relay Triathlon at the Olympics, Team GB orchestrated the perfect race over the 300m swim, 6.8km bike ride and 2km run.
Afterwards, Yee said he had been inspired to take up triathlon after watching Jonny race at London 2012. Brownlee said that was the greatest praise he could ever hope for. And as he stood with that gold medal around his neck, he reached into his pocket and fished out a piece of paper.
It was the official record of each athlete’s times that day and showed Jonny’s had been the best. ‘I’m so proud of this,’ he said. ‘I got the fastest leg of the whole day and the fastest run. I’m proud of this piece of paper. I might keep it.’
For so much of his triathlon career he has had to live in the shadow of his brother Alistair (L)