As if winning gold and silver in the triathlon at the Rio Olympics last summer wasn’t enough to secure the Brownlees a place in the nation’s heart, a month later they went on to melt it with a display of brotherly love that had the Prime Minister, Theresa May, hailing them as national icons. When Alistair dragged his ailing younger brother Jonny across the finish line at the final of the World Series in Mexico, the video went global, prompting an outpouring of praise. Now the brothers are back in Yorkshire, sitting by the fire in their festive jumpers decorating the tree with their medals as they tell RT all about Christmas round at the Brownlees’.
“We stay at our parents’ house every Christmas Eve,” says Alistair, “so we can all wake up together and open our presents.” “We don’t buy each other stuff,” adds Jonny. “But we buy our little brother Ed [aged 20] something from both of us – a BMX or a GoPro. Last year it was a toaster that also poaches eggs.” “Then we have a tradition,” continues Alistair, “of going for a Christmas Day run before dinner.” “Ed has no interest in coming with us,” says Jonny. “He says triathlons are ridiculous! He doesn’t get what the attraction is, or why people watch us. He’s studying to be a vet. He’s a world expert in sheep and chickens…” “And then after dinner we play board games,” says Alistair. “We used to be really competitive when we were younger – Monopoly pieces would always end up flying into the air… But once you’ve competed in the Olympics you realise that winning a game of Monopoly isn’t that important!”
Last summer that competitiveness was more than evident. In Rio, 28-year-old Alistair made history by defending his triathlon Olympic gold, with Jonny, two years his junior, upgrading his London 2012 bronze to silver. “Our goal was to win gold and silver,” says Alistair. “We did that, which was very special. So it’s a huge relief it’s over because it’s not just the end of the year for us, it’s the end of four years.”
But while Alistair deservedly felt satisfied with his achievements post-Rio, Jonny wasn’t quite done for the year. “I really want to become world champion,” he explains, “that’s why I carried on training after the Olympics, while Alistair took a break.”
In September the brothers were reunited for the season’s last World Series race in Mexico, which turned out to be a blessing. Just 700 metres from the finish line, Jonny was in the lead when he started stumbling and weaving. Running up behind him, Alistair saw his brother struggling and instinctively placed his arm around his shoulders, dragging him to the finish.
Alistair helps brother Jonny across the World Series finish line
In a final act of affection he stopped short of the line and pushed Jonny over it, so he won bronze. Jonny was then rushed to intensive care to recover. “I went to bed that night and Jonny had lost the World Champs, which kind of ruined what would have been an almost perfect season,” says Alistair. “I also didn’t know if I had done the right thing in terms of the rules. Then I woke up the next morning and was shocked!” Would Jonny do the same for his brother? “I will do now!” laughs Jonny. “Alistair actually had a similar episode in 2010 and I ran straight past, but I didn’t understand what he was going through. Although if it was the Olympics and I was going for gold then maybe not!”
But the brothers racing each other on the Olympic stage is something we may never get another chance to see. In what seems like the ultimate act of brotherly love, Alistair is stepping away from the triathlon. When asked if they can imagine a time when they’ll no longer be racing together, they look at each other and smile. “Alistair might be doing a bit of long-distance racing,” says Jonny. “We’ll still be doing a lot of training together but maybe not the same races, which will definitely be a little bit strange.” “I want to try racing the Iron Man for a couple of years,” says Alistair, “and then I’ll decide what I want to do with the next Olympics.”
It’s a huge decision to turn away from a sport that he’s dominated over the past few years, but one that will undoubtedly give Jonny the chance to become world champion – and perhaps even win Olympic gold.
Sports Personality of the Year airs on Sunday 18 December at 6.40pm on BBC1