Band of Brothers | The Brownlees Talk Olympic Glory, And Their Hopes For Rio 2016
At London 2012, Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee became the first brothers in 104 years to share an Olympic podium.
The Wright brothers, the Brothers Grimm, the Neville brothers, the Klitschko brothers, Mario and Luigi; all famous male siblings, who've etched their names in the history books for achieving things most of us can only dream of. After their remarkable accomplishments at the London 2012 Olympic Games, nobody on Earth could argue that the West Yorkshire brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee didn't deserve to have their names added to such an illustrious list.
If you can't remember what happened at London 2012, let us cast your minds back to August the 7th of that year. The men's triathlon, as well as the women's triathlon which occurred on the 4th, took place in Hyde Park. At the end of an hour and three quarters of intense competition, Alistair bagged the gold with his brother Jonathan finishing about 30 seconds later in third. Javier Gomez Noya, of Spain, separated the pair with his silver medal finish.
"I keep my gold medal in a sock drawer."
The Brownlees became the first brothers to stand together on an Olympic podium, for an individual sport, since the London Olympic Games of 1908 (a whole 104 years earlier). In a summer when the entire country came down with a severe case of Olympic fever, the siblings were celebrated as heroes by millions of people who wouldn't normally look twice at a triathlon event.
During the build-up to Rio 2016, the boys were kind enough to take some time out of their preparation to talk to us about their London 2012 experience, their hopes for Rio 2016, and what it's like training and competing alongside your own brother.
“I’m just having a massage at the moment, so if you hear any funny noises you know what’s happening," Jonathan tells me over the phone before the interview's even properly begun. I think about asking him if he'd like me to call back later, but then I realise that preparing for an Olympic triathlon is clearly quite a time consuming business and that there might not be another chance to speak again later. Chat to them now, when they're having a massage, or don't chat to them at all. I go with the former.
“When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a professional footballer for Leeds United. It was only when I got to about 13 or 14 and I realised I wasn’t good enough to play football, that I shifted to triathlon," says Jonathan when I ask him if he'd always wanted to be an Olympic triathlete. Not a bad decision, all things considered. Leeds United were trying, and still are trying, to rejoin the top division of English football when the Brownlees were listening to the national anthem with medals around their necks.
“From about 10, I think it was, I wanted to be an Olympic triathlete," says Alistair; who's two years older than Jonathan. Another classic example, if another example was needed, of a sporting champion dedicating their young lives to a dream and then seeing that dream all the way through to its most satisfying of conclusions.
It's not exactly a secret that most siblings have a bit of a love/hate relationship, and so I decided to push the Brownlee boys on the upsides and downsides of working with a brother to achieve a common goal.
"We used to live together [as adults], and that caused all the sort of arguments you'd expect it to. Whose turn it was to do the washing up, that sort of thing," Jonathan tells us; unintentionally sparking in this writer's mind the potential for a sitcom about two triathletes from Yorkshire living, training, and buying groceries together. I quickly remember that I'm chatting to two of Britain's best Olympic athletes of recent times, and snap right back into interviewer mode.
"Of course, like any siblings we have our arguments. Training together as much as we do means the disagreements are inevitable, but at least when you argue with your brother it's easier to make up and move on...," Alistair says before adding, as if keen to underline that they're a united front, "the benefits of training with your brother is that you can really push each other to be better."
It's not long before the conversation inevitably drifts towards that spectacular day at London 2012, and how it felt not only to achieve what they achieved but to do it in front of a home crowd as well.
"Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic," Jonathan tells me. And while it's clear that the pair are chuffed with everything that happened in the capital that summer, their down-to-earth responses when questioned about their success really strikes a chord. "I keep my gold medal in a sock drawer. It's nice to have, but I wouldn't want to keep it in a frame or anything like that," Alistair says, when I ask him where his medal is now.
“I’m just having a massage at the moment, so if you hear any funny noises you know what’s happening"
After beating Jonathan to gold in London four years ago, I put it to Alistair that if they're neck and neck on the closing straight in Rio he might be tempted to hang back and settle for silver so that his younger brother can get the gold medal this time around. When it comes, the answer is as emphatic as it is unsurprising: "Oh, no. If we're neck and neck in Rio, I'm going to sprint for the finishing line like I've never won a race in my life. If that happens this summer though, it's the dream scenario."
Talking of Rio, it's clear from my brief time talking to Jonathan that he isn't going to the first ever Olympic Games to be hosted in South America to play second fiddle to his Olympic-champion brother. He's going there to upgrade his medal from London; he's going there to win.
"Gold. It has to be gold. There's no point going if you don't believe you can win," he tells me when I ask him what he's looking to achieve in Brazil.
Unfortunately for the Brownlees, and the other Team GB athletes going for gold in Rio, the path to glory has obstacles on it that must be overcome. World-class athletes will be flying in from all over the world to prevent the top two spots on the triathlon podium becoming a family affair, and this is something the brothers are clearly well aware of. Jonathan, in particular, has no doubts about the pair's biggest external threats.
"Javier Gomez of Spain. He came second in London, and he's a five-time world champion. Also, Mario Mola. Obviously, it's a bit of a cliche to say this but you can only really focus on how you’re training and what you’re doing. But yeah, I’d say Gomez and Mola are the main ones."
Such is the world of sport, a place where fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, just over three weeks after this interview was conducted Gomez announced on Instagram that he was pulling out of Rio 2016 following an injury-causing bike crash that required surgery. While this withdrawal clearly boosts the chances of Brownlee success, you can guarantee that the pair will be taking nothing for granted at this summer's Olympic triathlon venue.
With a remarkable 65 medals won at London 2012, and a third place finish to go with it, still fresh in many people's minds I was curious to find out from people who lived and breathed that incredible fortnight from an athlete's perspective whether Team GB would be able to live up to the spectacularly high standards they set themselves then.
“So, it’s going to be difficult what with athletes like Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy retiring because those guys offered you guaranteed medals in the cycling, but I do think we’ve got a really strong team this year," says Jonathan.
“Obviously, I’m not really qualified to comment on other people’s sports but I don’t think there’s any reason why Team GB can’t match the success of London 2012," Alistair adds, boosting my quietly-held confidence that Britain can match their stunning exploits from last time out (at the time of writing Britain are second in the medal table, and on course for their best ever showing at an away Olympics).
“Oh, no. If we’re neck and neck in Rio, I’m going to sprint for the finishing line like I’ve never won a race in my life."
Before I let the Brownlees get back to their massages, and other preparations for Rio 2016, I put my mischievous hat on and ask them which brother, if any, do their parents root for when they're head-to-head in the closing stages of an elite-level triathlon? The answer from Alistair, as you might expect it to be, is one that only underlines the fact that this isn't just a team unit - it's a family one as well.
"You'd have to ask them yourself, and even then you'd have to force them into giving an honest answer which I don't think they would," he says.
Rather than track them down and shine a light directly into the eyes of Alistair and Jonathan's parents until they give me an answer to this question, I decide to let it go as it's probably the kind of distraction Team Brownlee could do without right about now. Putting my cards well and truly on the table, I wish the brothers well for Rio and establish that Mpora will be cheering for them loudly. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," Shakespeare once wrote. In the case of these Olympian brothers, it's a line that feels particularly apt.