LEEDS, England (Reuters) – He had one final push, gave it his all, but a shot at making it a hat-trick of triathlon Olympic gold medals has proven a step too far for Alistair Brownlee. But that does not mean his impact in sport – in Tokyo and beyond – is over yet.
Having focused on long distance triathlon in recent years, Brownlee, who won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, had a late change of heart and tried to meet the qualification standard to be part of the Great Britain team this summer in Japan.
It was too little, too late, however, as injury hampered the number of races he needed to win for a British triathlon slot, with his final race, in his home city of Leeds earlier this month, ending in disappointing fashion, as he was disqualified for “ducking” a rival during the swimming leg.
“It was harsh, that stuff happens all the time,” Brownlee, 33, told Reuters in an interview. “It is dirty water, you have no idea who the people are around you, and I certainly didn’t.
“I think if I had a good result I would have appealed it. That being said, in a way, I am relieved it is all over. That is me done with Olympic distance triathlon. I always knew I was pushing my luck to qualify for Tokyo. In the past three months I questioned why I had done this, but that is why the Olympics is special.”
Having conquered Olympic distance triathlon – a 1500 metre swim, 40 kilometre bike ride and a 10k run – an altogether more mindboggling challenge will again retain his focus: “SUB7”.
Next spring, Brownlee’s goal is to become the first person to complete an Ironman race – a 3.9 kilometre open water swim, a 180km cycle followed by a full marathon – in under seven hours, hence the name, requiring him to break the record by more than 51 minutes.
Everyone, including brother and fellow Olympic medal-winning triathlete Jonny Brownlee, who is heading for Tokyo this summer, has questioned his sanity.
“SUB7 is a mad idea, but it was my idea so only got myself to blame,” Brownlee said. “Jonny thinks it is a mad idea. But he would say that. He is not going to say ‘Oh, that is a great idea Alistair, I wish I had it’.”
Training for such a monumental feat would be all-encompassing for most, but Brownlee is wired differently, with a move into sport politics also now on the agenda.
“I am lucky to be able to go to Tokyo this summer still,” Brownlee added. “I am in the election for the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Athletes’ Commission. It is an athletes’ vote in Tokyo.
“Every single athlete, from every country, gets to vote. Every country puts one candidate forward, and I am the British candidate, getting across athletes’ views to the very top of the IOC.
“Traditionally, you are hanging around in the Olympic Village canvassing for votes, but that is difficult in COVID times. It is now about talking to the right people and getting across what I believe in.”
Also a member of the 2022 Commonwealth Games’ organising committee, to be held in the English city of Birmingham, Brownlee is undertaking more and more such roles as his future away from competing in sport comes to the fore.
Retirement means relaxation for the majority. Brownlee, however, tends to go against convention. When his time comes, and the longer-distance itch has been scratched, there is much he can do behind the scenes to make a difference, all while filling his extra free time in unusual ways.
“I think I have a lot to offer, not just in sport,” Brownlee added. “It would be an honour to represent Olympic athletes. I am passionate about the power of the Olympics. The 12-year-old me watching Sydney (in 2000) is why I did triathlon. I am just passionate about doing what I can to keeping the Olympic movement as relevant as ever.
“Retirement is inevitable but hard when you love competing. Roger Federer got asked why he is still playing tennis and he just said ‘Why can’t I do this sport that I love?’ and that is what it comes down to. I will focus on my longer distance stuff for a while yet.
“When I do retire, I would also have time to do the more crazy endurance events, like climbing mountains, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc or mad gravel races. My friends always joke about how long my retirement list is. These events are pretty relaxed compared to what I am used to.”
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Hugh Lawson)