Taken on the finish line of the World Triathlon Series finale in the suffocating heat and humidity of Mexico, it is the ultimate illustration of sporting sacrifice which has the invigorating power to inspire a new era of sportsmanship.
With 700 metres left of a 10km run, and with a world championship in sight, Jonny’s wobbly legs turn to jelly as he staggers from side to side with dehydration and heat stroke.
On the brink of collapse, he is grabbed by the pursuing Alistair who, without a moment’s pause, clasps his younger brother’s right arm around his shoulder as they set off towards finishing line.
No words are exchanged... there’s still a world title to be won. With the younger Brownlee’s eyes glazed over like a punch-drunk boxer, he has virtually no control of his arms and legs as Alistair – the two-time Olympic champion – sacrifices his own chances of success to virtually carry his brother to the end of the race.
Uncertain of the rules and whether competitors have to cross the line unaided, he then hurls Jonny across the line to an unlikely second place finish behind the ruthless South African Henri Schoeman, who did not stop to help.
It’s not enough – Spaniard Mario Mola’s fifth place finish is just sufficient, by four points, to snatch the world title from Jonny at the end of a dramatic season which had seen the Brownlees finish first and second at the Rio Olympics.
Yet the moral winners are the brothers – and sport itself – as these pictures are broadcast to a global audience. As Jonny said: “Sometimes in sport we talk about winning being the most important thing in the world, and a lot of the time it is, but maybe yesterday helping a brother out was more important. All I can say is thank you.”
And there’s no doubting Alistair’s sincerity when he said that he would have stopped for any other competitor – he, too, was overcome by fatigue towards the end of a triathlon in 2010 – before mocking the tactics pursued by his brother who he described in his unmistakable Yorkshire accent as a “flipping idiot”.
For, while these indomitable brothers would prefer to be known for their triumphs, this one extraordinary act means the whole country is aware of the Brownlees, and their humanity, as they host their own triathlon today at Harewood House where they will encourage a new generation to take up a sport that they have made their own.
Launched in the wake of the London Olympics four years ago, it is just another illustration that these are down-to-earth lads who are as passionate about promoting sport and healthy living as they are about putting their own bodies on the line in the pursuit of glory.
This is now resonating as the odds on Alistair Brownlee winning the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year tumble by the day. Channel Four News ended their bulletin with the triathlon’s denouement, letting the pictures speak for themselves, while a couple of awe-struck National Hunt jockeys – a hardy breed – said they felt weak and humble in comparison.
And then the sports coaches. A colleague who runs a junior football side intends to show video footage of the Brownlees before this weekend’s games. Why? “The importance of looking after your friends and team-mates,” he said.
Ahead of the Brownlees leading next Wednesday’s parade of Yorkshire Olympians and Parlympians in Leeds city centre, it is another example of why God’s own county is so fortunate to have these role models par excellence.
Global ambassadors for Yorkshire – it is said they once spurned offers to base themselves in Arizona because they would miss the challenge of cycling and running up the likes of Otley Chevin – their shining example helps restore one faith’s in sport following another tawdry week as the post-Rio glow slowly fades.
Take Tuesday’s lurid back page headlines – and you appreciate, still further, why the Brownlees, and so many of Team GB’s heroes, are in a different league. There were tales of the self-anointed ‘special one’ Jose Mourinho blaming everyone – players, officials and Uncle Tom Cobley – for the once migthy Manchester United’s third defeat in a week. What he would pay for characters like the Brownlees in the Old Trafford changing room – and their team ethic.
Then there was that rampant self-publicist Joey Barton trying to defend a lifetime of thuggish acts on and off the football pitch as he is banned from the Rangers training ground for three weeks.
And then the disgraced ex-rugby union international Chris Ashton – the show pony who used to celebrate his tries by performing the ‘swallow dive’. Not content with making contact with the eye area of an opponent last season, he’s now been banned for 12 weeks for biting – yes biting – a rival player. The Luis Suarez of rugby is lucky to have escaped a life ban.
Yet regrettably the newsprint, and airtime, devoted to this terrible triumvirate detracted attention away from the magnificence of the Brownlees who appear to have been competing non-stop since Rio rather than letting their hair down on the celebrity circuit.
Don’t forget this. They swim 1,500m, cycle 40km and run 10km on a regular basis. Compare that to those top-flight footballers who struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to play 90 minutes once a week despite being paid mega-millions for the privilege.
And that one image of Alistair Brownlee coming to the aid of his stricken brother, showed a strength of character, sportsmanship and sacrifice that you just don’t see in football – or most other sports for that matter. He should be Sports Personality of the Year and the campaign starts here and now.
As the hero of the hour put it so eloquently: “It was a natural human reaction to help my brother but to be honest I would have saved anyone. It’s dangerous for someone to conk out close to the finish line. It’s as close to death as you can be in sport I think.”