- 19 Aug 08, 07:58 AM
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.
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.
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."
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