Jonny Brownlee and triathlon champions embrace true meaning of sport at Olympics – Tom Richmond

THE iconic – and inspiring images – from Japan remain indicative of sport’s ability to inspire and more than justify the difficult decision to stage the Tokyo Olympics behind closed doors in the midst of a pandemic.

What joy to wake to stirring Team GB performances in such a wide range of pursuits – including ‘urban sports’ like BMX riding and skateboarding that had no previous Olympic history.

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Yet there is one photo that epitomises fun and friendship – the true meaning of sport – and that will have even more resonance here in a county that remains so proud of its generation of Olympians and Paralympians.

Gold medalists Jessica Learmonth, Jonathon Brownlee, Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Yee of Team Great Britain celebrate following the Mixed Relay Triathlon on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park.

It was the emotional embrace early last Saturday between Jonny Brownlee and his fellow members of Great Britain’s triathlon team after winning a historic gold medal in the inaugural renewal of the sport’s mixed relay.

As young pretender Alex Yee crossed the finishing line, he collapsed with exhaustion into the arms of Brownlee, Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown after one of the most dominant victories of these Olympics.

Brownlee is no stranger to iconic moments in an outstanding career second only to his older brother Alistair and which has seen triathlon grow in status around the world.

Yet, as the 31-year-old finally secured the Olympic gold medal that his past feats so deserved, it was the endearing camaraderie between the quartet that was so endearing and which now has the power to inspire others.

Great Britain's Alex Yee, Georgia Taylor-Brown Jessica Learmonth and Jonathan Brownlee on the podium with the gold medal for the Triathlon Mixed Relay at Odaiba Marine Park on the eighth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

A triumph for Leeds, the new home of triathlon, Learmonth, whose family come from Tadcaster, was working in Sainsbury’s a decade ago and only took up the sport for a laugh after being inspired by the Brownlee brothers. Now she was standing on top of the Olympic podium alongside one of her heroes and best friends. Talk about surreal.

Meanwhile 23-year-old Yee, the individual silver medallist, is the young tyro who became enraptured by the sport when he was gifted some training kit from a competitor at the 2012 Olympics. The triathlete? Jonny Brownlee.

Now they were presenting each other with their gold medals in a ceremony made even more poignant by Covid biosecurity protocols as the quartet spoke about their friendship and how sport had changed their lives.

And their extraordinary example matters at an Olympics where the issue of mental health – and the pressures faced by competitors from gymnastics great Simone Biles to Leeds diver Jack Laugher – has been handled so sensitively.

Jonny Brownlee in traithlon action at the Tokyo Olympics.

Even though the willpower of the Brownlee brothers in the pursuit of victory is world-renowned, they will judge the legacy by the number of people of all abilities participating in triathlon and other sports. That, to them, is a barometer and benchmark of success.

After all, sport doesn’t have to be about winning at all costs – a point highlighted by Yorkshire’s Olympic oarsman Andrew Triggs Hodge who is now striving to encourage youngsters from all backgrounds to take up rowing.

The three-time gold medallist made a profound point before the Games when he talked about opening up sport to people from all backgrounds – particularly those youngsters more susceptible to delinquency and drugs.

“The love of sport comes first, not some medal-production line,” he said before the inquest began into why Team GB rowers failed to win a gold medal for the first time since 1980.

Leeds diver Jack Laugher has spoken of his struggles with mental health.

“To me, it’s not ‘come and be a Olympian’. I just see risk all around that. A performance culture has to be based on a proper culture of enjoying sport. And that means for all.”

They’re wise words that will be familiar to the aforementioned Laugher whose springboard diving bronze on Wednesday was, in many respects, a greater triumph than the synchro gold that he won with Chris Mears in 2016.

He’d come close to quitting the sport because of the pressure he’d put himself under – and the torment that he suffered when a complicated dive went wrong in mid-air, shattered his confidence and caused endless sleepless nights.

Yet, once he rediscovered his love of sport, the likeable Laugher was back. “I hope I will sleep OK now. I need it,” he said.

It is also a salutary lesson as Britain looks to build on its latest Olympic legacy.

At a time when awareness of human frailties has never been greater, sport should, first and foremost, be about having fun, making friendships and respecting rivals as community and grassroots clubs prepare to welcome all those youngsters who have been left awe-inspired by these unique Olympics.

Just ask Jonny Brownlee. He – and his past and present team-mates – are the personification of this approach as they strive to encourage people to follow their dreams and begin a journey of discovery into the unknown that is called sport.

Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.

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