“Whether it’s the Olympics or not, whether I’m the favorite or not, whether it’s the hometown or not, whether no other favorite hometown athlete has ever won before—I don’t really care, to be honest. I’m just going to go try and race.” —Alistair Brownlee on what it’s like attempting to become the first home athlete in history to win gold.
Nothing encapsulates the unpredictability of Olympic triathlon better than the men’s inaugural Olympic race in Sydney in 2000.
Prior to the race, the pundits had pointed to five-time world champion Simon Lessing of Great Britain as the shoo-in for gold.
But with a kilometer to go, Lessing was nowhere to be found, and another Simon, an unknown Canadian named Simon Whitfield, was running his way into history.
“It’s a bit of a curse when you’re the favorite,” said Cliff English, who coaches 2012 Olympian Hunter Kemper and who was the former USA Triathlon Elite National Team coach. “Simon [Whitfield] came in loose and didn’t have any pressure on him, and he knew he could have a great run. When you have situations like this, great things can happen. It was one of the most inspiring races of all time.”
The Olympics—and pre-race favorites—have never been the same since.
This preview originally appeared in the July/August issue of Inside Triathlon.
The Pre-Race Favorites
The men’s circuit has been dominated of late by three names: Alistair Brownlee, Jonathan Brownlee and Javier Gomez. It will be no surprise to anyone if one of these men wins gold in London. Now, the question remains whether these pre-race favorites can do what few pre-race Olympic favorites have done before them: win when it matters most.
Alistair Brownlee (Great Britain) – Top Contender
If there is a single pre-race favorite, it’s Alistair Brownlee, the elder Brownlee brother. The two-time and reigning world champion has demonstrated that pressure doesn’t get to him, he’s fantastic at performing on the day (he’s won three ITU Grand Finals in three tries) and he possesses a will to win that allows him to push himself to places that few competitors can match. While he announced in February that he had suffered an Achilles tear, he has proven before that winter injuries have little effect on him come mid- to late summer. Indeed, a stress fracture that put him out for the winter of 2010 had no bearing on the 2010 Grand Final in Budapest, where he outsprinted Gomez for the win.
Biggest Weakness: Other than being injury-prone, Alistair has no weaknesses.
Jonathan Brownlee (Great Britain) – Top Contender
If the race becomes tactical, the younger Brownlee could beat out his brother for gold, as he’s the 2010 and 2011 ITU sprint world champion, and even Alistair will tell you that Jonny is better over shorter distances than he is. Jonny is also more durable than Alistair, which is quite the asset for athletes heading into the Olympics.
Biggest Weakness: Jonathan often defers to his older brother, so if it comes down to a two-man race between him and Alistair, Alistair is likely to take the crown.
Javier Gomez (Spain) - Top Contender
There are a few cards that this two-time world champion has to play that the Brownlee brothers do not. For one, he’s going into the Olympics somewhat under the radar, as the Brownlees are British and the reigning world champion and runner-up, and they will likely be hounded by the notoriously fierce British press. Secondly, Gomez knows what it’s like to go into an Olympics as the favorite, while the Brownlees do not. Prior to Beijing in 2008, he won virtually every race he competed in and was the odds-on favorite for gold, but he overtrained earlier that year and suffered an Achilles injury and stress fracture that hampered his running ability.
Biggest Weakness: Gomez lacks top-end sprint speed. If he’s going to win, he will have to break his competitors before the final 2K of the race.
Bevan Docherty (New Zealand) – Dark Horse
This two-time Olympic medalist has been extremely outspoken since 2009 that he wants to win gold in London—and that every training session and race since then has been executed with this goal in mind. Docherty has proven he knows how to perform well when it matters most. Don’t count him out.
Simon Whitfield (Canada) – A Wildcard
Many people have already written off the sport’s first male gold medalist and the 2008 silver medalist as too old. But lately he’s been taking big risks with his volume in hopes of catching the Brownlees and Gomez. Given that he’s transformed himself before—he went from a 10K specialist in 2000 to an all-around triathlete in 2008—it’s never safe to count him out.
Jan Frodeno (Germany) – A Wildcard
Like his girlfriend, Emma Snowsill, Jan Frodeno has been inconsistent since he won gold in Sydney. But he loves the limelight and has proven he can perform when it matters most. “In my mind, if you’re not an entertainer, you’re going to be in trouble [at the Olympics],” said ITU announcer and historian Barrie Shepley. “Jan Frodeno is an entertainer.”