Ming Tombs Reservoir

You can plan and you can plan, but sometimes Olympic golds are decided by things you simply have no control over.

Britain's former world triathlon champion Tim Don spent Thursday and Friday watching the contents of his stomach come back past his teeth, at speed. For two days he could hold nothing down - not even water.

He had eaten exactly the same food from the exactly the same places as his four GB team-mates. 18-year-old Hollie Avil went down with the same vomiting virus; the other three felt fine.

Come race-day here at the Ming Tombs reservoir to the north of Beijing, Don was a man swimming and cycling on empty. Avil had already dropped out of her race the day before.

Team GB had kept Don's illness quiet so as not to tip off his rivals that something was wrong.

As it turned out, four years of preparation, 16 years of triathlon, all disappeared down the toilet, right in front of his eyes.

Germany's Jan Frodeno (left) outsprints Canada's Simon Whitfield to win triathlon gold

The man who did take gold, storming to victory with a wonderful sprint in the last 50m, was Germany's Jan Frodeno.

He only took up triathlon in the first place because a girl that he fancied did it.

Had she been a netball player, or into clubbing, he probably wouldn't even have been here.

Elite level sport isn't supposed to have time for such nebulous notions as good luck and fate, but try telling that to Don and Frodeno this afternoon.

For every triathlete out there this morning, however, not just Don, it was a day of suffering and pain.

The venue was stunning - forested hills on two sides, a red-roofed pagoda on the island overlooking the swim, misty mountains just visible through the haze - but the conditions were brutal.

Even at 8.30am, an hour and a half before the gun, it was hot enough for walking with a laptop bag to feel like a hazardous activity.

Quite why the triathletes were expected to race from 10am to midday when even the marathon is scheduled to finish by 9.30am remains a cruel mystery understood only by the air-conditioned organisers.

Such was the searing heat on the run that if you let your dog out to play in it you'd expect to be shopped by the RSPCA.

The British team had tried to prepare for such conditions by training in Austin, Texas, where temperatures got as high as 40 degrees centigrade on one bike ride.

For a while it all seemed to be paying off for 20-year-old Alistair Brownlee, the fresh-faced fell-runner from Leeds whose younger brother Jonny is also an outstanding talent.

While Don and Will Clarke exited the swim 35 seconds down on the leaders, 47th and 48th out of 54 competitors, Brownlee ran out of transition and onto his bike in the company of all the big names.

Clarke formed a chasing pack that eventually hauled in the front-runners, but at enormous cost to his energy supplies. By the time of the run, his strongest discipline, he had very little left in his legs.

Don, meanwhile, cut a lonely figure, cut adrift at the back of the field and lapping ever more slowly as officials tried to make him pull over.

Britain'sTim Don was a lonely figure in the cycling

A year ago in the World Cup event on this course, Don crashed on the bike and fractured his elbow. He's probably sick of the sight of the place.

Brownlee, meanwhile, jumped off his bike just 20 seconds down on a breakaway of two athletes.

In the company of Frodeno, world champion Javier Gomez, 2000 Olympic champion Simon Whitfield and 2004 silver medallist Bevan Docherty, he soon reeled those two in.

Going into the second of the four 2.5km laps, remarkably, he was in the lead.

As he held his own with the most illustrious names in the sport toiling behind him, it seemed for a lap as if his self-proclaimed motto, "He who dares, wins" might actually, stunningly, come to pass.

"It was brilliant," he said afterwards. "I was loving it.

"I was thinking - wow - this is what I've always dreamed of. It wasn't feeling that hard - I was running at my own pace.

"I reasoned that I had a choice. I could go out and give it my all and try to risk it, or I could hang back and maybe come eighth.

"I think you're better risking it all and going for the medal, so that's what I did."

The fairy-tale began to fade around the seven kilometre mark, when Gomez, Frodeno and Whitfield picked the pace up still further.

Brownlee tried to live them, but the midday heat and his earlier gamble began to take their toll.

With a lap to go he was 20 seconds down and in seventh, and after a final purgatorial kilometre along the blue carpeted concrete above the reservoir, he crossed the line in 12th.

Two places and 13 seconds further back was Clarke, left ruing the gap he'd allowed to build up at the start.

"It was really tough out there," he admitted. "I was very down on the swim, so I had to work hard to chase on the bike, which at this level is not good. You've always got to be at the front, saving yourself.

"I wasn't swimming fast enough. I've been running really well in training. I've been in my best ever shape, but I didn't really do myself justice.

"I will improve my swimming and come back better, but hopefully in London it will be a lot easier and the conditions will suit me a lot more."

None of the three Brits left happy, not even Brownlee, who most of us thought would be using this as experience for his assault on the Olympic title on home soil in four years time.

"I'm gutted, to be honest," he said. "I came here to win a medal.

"I gave it everything I can. I trained as hard as I can, I prepared as well as I can, but I came 12th.

"Hopefully, an extra four years maturity will help me gain those extra 12 places in 2012."

Tom Fordyce is a BBC Sport journalist covering a wide range of events in Beijing. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


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  • 1. At 11:16am on 19 Aug 2008, highthief wrote:

    Great race, Whitfield almost did it again at the end, timing his finishing kick so well just as he did in Sydney. But well done to Frodeno, who was not fancied going in. Big surprise that Gomez finished out of the medals.

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  • 2. At 11:18am on 19 Aug 2008, Tim wrote:

    I watched the highlights of this race before work this morning, and I thought Brownlee ran an excellent and exciting race.

    I hope he achieves his ambition and comes in in 0th position in London!

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  • 3. At 11:41am on 19 Aug 2008, mattyd wrote:

    It was indeed a great race in tough conditions - it does seem very odd that they chose to have athletes running in midday heat. lets hope brownlee and clarke have better luck than Don in the run up to 2012.

    just a comment on Alistair - rather than being a full-time athlete he is currently studying at University of Leeds. Keep an eye out for his younger brother Jonathon too. He is following in Alistairs footsteps - winning bronze in this year world junior Triathlon championships.

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  • 4. At 11:53am on 19 Aug 2008, Ryushinku wrote:

    When all's said and done, Brownlee should reflect on this and realise how well he's done. Good to hear he's disappointed now, that's the drive to win, but he had plenty of positives to take from this.

    I did feel sorry for Don, he was struggling.

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  • 5. At 4:40pm on 19 Aug 2008, santista02 wrote:

    Nicely written (though I enjoyed the 0th comment).

    I was pleased with the British effort all round, but then anyone that is mad enough to "Tri" deserves credit.

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  • 6. At 5:42pm on 19 Aug 2008, psychoneko wrote:

    Can we cue in "Ode To A Grecian Urn"? I heard about the unfortunate stomach issues that befell the British team but reading the part about the German winner doing triathlon because of a girl simply took the cake.

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  • 7. At 11:31pm on 19 Aug 2008, oscarsnr wrote:

    Alistair is my eldest nephew, and we are all very proud of him down here in NZ.

    Knowing that he's always had the will to win, I thought he might make the Top 20. But it freaked me out to see him on TV in contention for a medal right up until the end!

    The commentator here was funny - it was, like "...and an unknown British schoolboy has escaped onto the track and taken the lead.."

    Looking forward to 2012 already.

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  • 8. At 2:55pm on 22 Aug 2008, RedCerutty wrote:

    Bad luck? British Triathlon have a history of sending unfit teams to the Olympics and it has happened again. Don and Avil acted in the most selfish way possible by choosing to race. The team had two fit reserves ready to race but instead these two wastes of space turned up.

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  • 9. At 7:23pm on 25 Aug 2008, akadocf wrote:

    Blown away by Brownlee's fantastic performance. In spite of some understandable disappointment at running out of steam in the latter stages of the run, I hope he reflects on his gutsy performance with a great deal of pride and satisfaction.

    Regrettably, I have to concur with comments re Don and Avil. Whilst your heart goes out to both of them, neither of them should have raced, having gone down with such severe sickness so close to the event when there were fit replacements able to replace them. I suspect Don and Avil's disappointment was equalled by those reserve athletes looking on, watching the opportunity of a place in the olympic triathlon being essentially wasted. Team GB management should take full responsibility for the rather indulgent decisions that were made, and ensure that they are not repeated in future.

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  • 10. At 7:42pm on 25 Aug 2008, GeoffreyBoycottsTeamTalk wrote:

    Well done to all the triathletes. I would have loved to hve seen Don up there in a medal position. I'm sure he had the potential. The guy is tough though, I'm sure he'll come through this upset. Brownlee was brilliant, I wouldnt be surprised if he's the favourite in 4 years.

    Britain needs way more emphasis on triathlon. Hazel Irvine didn't even get his name right when congratulating him, did you Haley? I'm sick of seeing the triathlon BBC page updated once every 2-3months or so while the football page is updated 2-3 times a day with pics of Harry Redknapp's fat red face and his eyes half shut.

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  • 11. At 1:13pm on 31 Aug 2008, offshoreswimmer wrote:

    I just wanted to agree with sportisawonderdrug's comment. Triathlon doesn't get anywhere near enough coverage, and when it does it tends to be on at some obscure time in the morning.

    How much coverage of Chrissie Wellingtons superb efforts in Hawaii last year was there? I find this very bizarre considering that Tri is one of the fastest growing sports in the country.

    Unfortunately football will continue to have the monopoly on coverage, but which would you rather hear about, Rooney's damaged metatarsal or Brownlee's efforts in Beijing? I know who is the better role model.

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