As sporting statements of intent, few come bigger than the spectacular success of the UK leg of the world series triathlon when it left the capital for the first time in its history.
The triumph of all the all-conquering Alistair and Jonny Brownlee was expected, but even these down-to-earth lads were blown away by the public’s response to an event which should, on this evidence, be here to stay.
Four years ago, thousands crammed into Millennium Square to catch a glimpse of their home town heroes after they captured the hearts of their county and country by winning gold and bronze at the London Olympics.
Now 100,000 spectators turned out to watch the brothers put down a marker for this summer’s Rio Olympics with a brilliant Brownlee one-two, their most satisfying yet. The sport has moved on that far.
The biggest attendance at any global triathlon event since the London Olympics, it would not have been possible without the fearless duo who continue to swim, cycle and run like no other. They have still to receive the international plaudits that other sporting competitors, most notably this country’s under-performing footballers, have received for achieving far less.
But they’re the first to admit that Sunday’s success was the result of the triathlon embracing Leeds – and vice-versa. Unlike London which came to regard open-air events as an inconvenience, this race was the culmination of a week of events to promote the health benefits of sport.
School visits were followed by Roundhay Park being invaded by have-a-go youngsters trying a duathlon, before a mass participation triathlon prior to the two international races.
As people of all ages, shapes and sizes ran through a tide of humanity, waving to relatives, friends, work colleagues and strangers cheering from the pavements, they would have been forgiven for thinking they were hallucinating. There, leading the applause, were the Brownlees, lending their support to a event which will, in time, become the triathlon’s equivalent of the Great North Run.
On the weekend the so-called beautiful game’s reputation was being trashed by football fans in France, here were triathlon’s two biggest names mingling with spectators hours before one of the defining races of their careers. Could you imagine England’s footballers, cricketers or rugby union teams doing likewise?
The stories were alluring as triathlon officials from all continents on the world came to Leeds to see the city change the rules of community engagement and involvement. Five of the six GB triathletes picked for Rio hail from Yorkshire, or have gravitated here.
One told the story about how the Brownlees were asked to move to Arizona for warm weather training. Alistair pondered. “Why when I’ve got Otley Chevin on my doorstep?” Brilliant.
So much for this being a sport for young bucks, British Triathlon chief executive Jack Buckner delighted in revealing how the sport’s fastest growing age group is women aged over 50.
And then the 750 or so volunteers who gave up their weekends to make this event happen. Minor glitches aside, they, too, deserve medals.
It was an intoxicating atmosphere – lycra-clad competitors sipping a heard-earned pint or two after completing their personal Olympics while spectators had a chance to get on a static bike and break Sir Chris Hoy’s 500m world record of 19.47 seconds. I noted Brownlee (A) managed 26.69 seconds – what took him so long? I politely declined the chance to put two of my sporting heroes to shame.
But it was indicative of a carnival-like atmosphere in which every sight of the Brownlees during the main race drew loud cheers – which only grew louder as they hit the front and the Olympic champion broke clear of his younger sibling for the glory run home.
The feeling was mutual. “If there is any doubt Leeds is one of the best sporting cities in the world, it was settled today,” said the victor. His brother concurred. He said the atmosphere and experience was more than comparable to London 2012 – praise indeed – before observing: “There’s nothing better than a good Yorkshire ‘Go on Jonny’ or something like that.”
Why does this matter? Sport is not just about London. Yorkshire’s enthusiasm for such events is unrivalled after the 2014 Tour de France, and more should move from the capital to the North. It’s about role models – and the Brownlees remain in a league of their own. And it’s about local authorities like Leeds Council recognising the power of sport to not only pull communities together but promote the city to a global television audience.
In this regard, this world-beating event was, potentially, priceless to the city’s psyche and potential. It showed the friendly face of Leeds at its very best. All that is needed now is for the golden owls perched on the towers of the Civic Hall to be replaced by statues of the Brownlees. They deserve nothing less.
As Alistair Brownlee tweeted: “Thank you Leeds for putting on a great event, thanks to all the supporters who made it truly special and thanks legs for working.”
Now to Rio – and next year’s world series event. No pressure lads.