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Why are the British dominating world triathlon?

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Ollie Williams | 05:59 UK time, Monday, 12 September 2011

A glorious weekend in Beijing has ensured Britain enters its home Olympic Games with both the male and female world champion triathletes.

The news gets better. Not only do Alistair Brownlee and Helen Jenkins now hold the world titles, Alistair's younger brother, Jonny, came second in the men's event.

Meanwhile, Britain's U23 men raced to a one-two-three as the 2011 season reached its climax at the sport's grand final in China.

But for the unwitting intervention of a stray dog, the team's results could have been yet more impressive.

When I ask the man in charge of Britain's triathletes why his team have become such a dominant force, it transpires the stray dog is an analogy for the entire sport.

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Helen Jenkins wins the women's 2011 world title (UK only)

"The Olympics are 11 months away and we're in a strong position," says Malcolm Brown, British Triathlon's Olympic performance manager, who is in China with his victorious squad as they celebrate.

"But think of it like this. Lucy Hall, one of our junior women, was leading her race here when a dog ran into her path and knocked her off her bike.

"The life of an athlete is full of stray dogs and you have to know how to deal with them when - and if - you see them."

Two world champions and a conveyor belt of younger talent implies those metaphorical dogs are safely on the leash for now.

Brown boils Britain's success down to three things: triathletes using their brains on the course, the governing body using its brain off it, and ensuring that developing athletes get the right coaching at the right time.

He has form with the latter. In 2002, the former endurance running coach for UK Athletics was dabbling in a little part-time coaching at the track when a father turned up with his two teenage sons.

As Brown remembers it, the man pointed to the taller boy and said: "This one is a good cross-country racer but after 200m he's always at the back. Can you make him faster?"

Gesturing to the shorter boy, the man added: "Don't worry about him. He's a footballer."

Alistair Brownlee would have been around 14, and Jonny two years younger. Brown enlisted the help of his colleague and triathlon coach Jack Maitland and, over the next decade, the pair not only made Alistair a bit quicker, they turned Jonny's head from football (if not Football Manager) and transformed them into the two finest male triathletes on the planet.

Brown looked at running and conditioning for the brothers while Maitland, who won the Everest Marathon in 1999 and remains the only non-Nepalese man in the list of its fastest times, concentrated on swimming and cycling. With time, the pair added physios, strength and conditioning coaches and so forth to reach the current staff of seven or eight, including a full-time manager, who prepare the Brownlees for races.

This is important because the Brownlees, alongside Jenkins, have set a precedent which has become the template for Britain's top triathletes.

Rather than basing themselves in a single centralised venue, like British Cycling's Manchester velodrome, the very best British triathletes are allowed to form their own staff and training bases. The Brownlees use Yorkshire and Jenkins uses Bridgend.

Triathletes in the UK earn the right to do that by finishing in the world's top eight, establishing themselves as a "podium athlete". But the system is flexible and, if athletes outside the top eight are prepared to accept a funding cut, they too are allowed to opt out of the sport's centralised programme. The likes of Tim Don and Will Clarke have done this and are known as "affiliate athletes", who can train elsewhere but still use British Triathlon's facilities as they see fit.

This leaves the centralised portion of British Triathlon - based in four centres, primarily Loughborough - free to focus on nurturing younger talent. A team of coaches with visiting specialists helps to prepare the next generation, such as the trio of U23 men who swept the Beijing podium, to follow in the footsteps of the Brownlees and Jenkins.

Matt Sharp, for example, overcame several years of injury trouble with the Loughborough centre's help, particularly its medical and sports science capabilities. He is now the newly crowned U23 world champion after leading home team-mates David McNamee and Tom Bishop in Beijing.

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Matt Sharp's coach, Mark Pearce, explains how Alistair Brownlee wins his races

Yet with serious money to be made for high-profile senior triathlon victories, if Sharp goes on to establish himself in the world's top eight he may look to follow the Brownlees and strike out away from Loughborough. It is not a perfect system and some triathletes believe they have been unfairly treated by it, but it is more fluid than many others and seems to work for the sport.

"If you take the Brownlees, they're born and bred in Yorkshire, went to Bradford Grammar, used to cycle to school along the towpath, do cross-country at school, and swim at Leeds swimming club in the morning," says Brown.

"That whole environment has supported them. They've got great running trails there, an excellent physio, good coaching and good education opportunities in the city - they're both Leeds and Leeds Met university graduates.

"If you say to them: 'Right, now we want you to move to some central venue,' the amount they have to give up - which makes them happy where they are - is huge. It's a huge risk. Why would you take that risk?

"The success of Helen and the two Brownlees enabled British Triathlon to feel confident that they could invest in and around talented athletes training with high-quality coaches in different places. You need individual arrangements for individual athletes within an overall framework of support, direction and stability."

That support gets the athlete to the race. Then, during the event, intelligence becomes the ultimate cog in the machine.

Brown sees triathlon as the most complicated of sports and wants athletes capable of thinking for themselves during the race, because making the correct decisions in the heat of the moment accounts for a large degree of the difference between, say, the Brownlees and the rest.

"Triathlon demands a substantial number of judgement calls: whether to follow a bike break or not, who are those guys up the road, will I go alone or will people come with me? In the run, what are my strengths and weaknesses and what do my rivals think they are? A lot of it is knowing yourself as an athlete," he says.

"If you're trying to create a world or Olympic champion, you have to create an environment where the individual athlete weighs up the circumstances, makes calls, and more often than not gets them right. That is what we have tried to do, and you can only do that by seeing them fail occasionally, or stepping back as a coach when you could provide the answer. It comes down to trusting the athlete."

Triathlon in Britain is healthy at all levels. Beyond the Olympics, Chrissie Wellington has become a legend of the sport with back-to-back-to-back world titles over the punishing Ironman distance.

Amateur membership in the UK has more than doubled in five years, the sport's own figures show, with race starts - numbers taking part in recognised races - up 10% in the last year alone to more than 130,000.

Brown, however, is not convinced this increased pool from which to draw can only mean more British success in future.

"The sport's burgeoning internationally," he counters. "The Germans have got a great set of juniors at the moment on the men's side, while the Aussies have some fantastic female athletes.

"We really have to raise our game. But we've got a platform to do that. If we can keep stray dogs off the path, we'll be OK."


  • Comment number 1.

    This is one of the few genuinely insightful blogs I've seen from any of the BBC reporters, enjoyed reading it!

  • Comment number 2.

    Great blog .... what chance of Chrissie Wellington even being nominated for SPOTY this year, let alone winning it? If 30 sports journalists couldn't recognise the significance of her achievements in 2009 then no wonder most British sports fans, let alone the wider public, have never heard of her. This woman should be a LEGEND, and would be in almost any other country, shame on your profession!!

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm informed that Ryan Hanlon won a gold medal at these championships in the 18-24 year class Sprint Triathlon. He lives in Wirral.
    Why hasn't there been a mention in your report about him....up and coming champion of the future!

  • Comment number 4.

    The dominance goes further back & is deeper than the post suggest (nice post btw). ITU Long course titles have been won by both Wellington & Jodie Swallow, Swallow & Julie Dibens both world 70.3 champions & Dibens Xterra world champ on at least a couple of occasions. Add Rachel Joyce & Leanda Cave to the mix & GB is truly dominant in Womens long distance triathlon.
    Olympic distance success reached further back with Spencer smith & Simon Lessing racking up multiple Olympic distance world titles between them in the 90's

    Chrissie Wellington deserves so much recognition, not only is she unbeaten, but her margins of victory (in terms of percentage) outstrip those of Radcliffe, Bolt & Johnson.

  • Comment number 5.

    Geoffi, I'm guessing you're kidding right? The age group races are not for elite racers, it's a chance for joe bloggs to pull on a GB vest and feel like a international athlete for a brief time. The time Ryan got, while impressive, is not a patch on what the true elite U23's do, or even what the elite Juniors do.

    Great blog, Ollie. A really good read.

  • Comment number 6.

    I echo the sentiments of Poster #1. Very enjoyable and informative read.

  • Comment number 7.

    Fully agree with the kudos for Wellington. She is a top athlete and personality, however I notice little separation of the distances, are the Brownlee brothers Ironmen?

  • Comment number 8.

    really interesting Blog. The brownlee's success has certainly sparked my interest in a sport i always perceived as boring. Thanks for showing me the more behind the scenes bits.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good blog - insightful and asks some interesting questions about the systems (or not) needed to achieve success in certain sports. An interesting read.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good blog Ollie. As VMullen said there is also great strength in depth from GB women long distance triathletes, with Julie Dibens, Cat Morrison and Rachel Joyce all having won Ironman races this year.

    The Brownlees are absolutely phenomenal though, coupling amazing athletic ability with a steely desire to win.

  • Comment number 11.

    Does this imply that Britain should really withdraw support for sports that don't suit our climate? Triathalon, Rugby, Golf, Road Cycling/BMX, etc.. all suit our wet, windy conditions, whereas more technical or weather affected sports like Tennis, Athletics or even Football perhaps should be reflected on as an unnatural fit.

    Even Cricket appears to succeed in spite of itself, by only playing in the brief British summer and working with elite schools and a strong local network of clubs.

  • Comment number 12.

    A big part of the increase in numbers doing triathlons is down to the influx of charity running that has devalued road running so much. In the eyes of many of the public road running is now all about charity fund raising, something that hasn't been helped by the BBC concentrating so much on the charity runners at VLM & GNR and dismissing the serious club runners as 'fun runners'. This has resulted in a lot of club runners looking for a new and unsullied challenge, something that triathlon still largely provides as you don't see hundreds of people in superhero costumes wobbling round a triathlon course at little more than walking pace and then expecting people to cough up for charity afterwards. Adventure racing and trail/fell running have also benefitted from the reaction against charity running.

  • Comment number 13.

    Soreshins, I think the more significant reason that a number of weekend athletes have moved from long distance road running into Triathlon is indiscreetly hidden in your username.

  • Comment number 14.

    Slightly off topic this, but nice way to dismiss the biggest sporting challenge some people undertake Soreshins. Running for charity has opened up the sport for many, many people to really enjoy and, in many cases excel at. Better to "wobble" around a marathon course than add to the long NHS waiting list of couch potatoes this country produces, don't you think?
    The elitest attitude at some running clubs has to be experienced to be believed. If the presence of Bananaman at an event sullies it that much then the elite club guys need to get a grip really. Oh and the Brownlee brothers are fantastic!

  • Comment number 15.

    Not just Triathlon - GB seems to have an extraordinary tradition in many multi-event or 'Jack of all trade' environments - Triathletes at sprint, olympic and ironman distances, Modern Pentathlon women (Cook, Allenby, Harland, Fell, Livingston, Spence), Heptathlon/Pentathlon (Peters, Lewis, Ennis), Decathlon (Thompson, Macey), not to mention our crossover athletes like Redgrave (rowing/bobsled), Cundy, Storey (swimming/cycling) and romero (rowing/cycling) - maybe the triathletes are building on a long legacy of All rounders (patron Sir Ian Botham!)

  • Comment number 16.

    Absolutely right RandomElk, sneering attitudes such as Soreshins' surely don't help anyone. Great blog, particularly regarding how the sport is decentralised. I think another point worth considering is that the athletes concerned are no doubt wonderfully talented. For great British all rounders, check out C. B. Fry.

  • Comment number 17.

    If we are doing well at it then it must be a minority sport. If it's something that's popular among LARGE groups of competitors (not physical size but actual people) then we are usually also rans. I'm only being flippant but really, does anyone think that the crowds for sprint races are going to sit & watch hours of this? Not really.

  • Comment number 18.

    Triathlon at the elite level is all about the run and having a watched a fair few of them on TV they're becoming a bit boring. The swim and bike might as well not be in the race almost. You can draft on the swim and you can draft on the bike. Nobody ever breaks away on the bike because the courses are always too flat. You can bet that at the London Olympics a big pack of 10 or so will come in from the bike and its then all about the run which one of the Brownlee's will probably win. They need to change it up by having sprint races or run the event as a time trial.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi all - thanks for the comments. Always appreciated.

    #3 Geoffi - in addition to #5 Tommy's answer, if I'd tried to mention every British medallist from the last weekend, I'd scarcely have had room to write anything else. All the major medallists are here and all the age-group medallists are here. By my count, there were 54 medals for British triathletes. You'll excuse me if I cherry-picked the few which pertained most immediately to my argument!

    #4 VMullen - Agreed. My focus is always on the Olympic disciplines so this deals more with the emergence of British dominance there than in the other (equally valid) triathlon distances. And I'd differentiate between this current GB ascendancy and the Lessing era by virtue of GB having male and female world champions at once, plus the added bonus of an U23 world title, which - correct me if I'm wrong! - I don't believe Britain has come close to seeing over the Olympic distance before.

    #7 Collie21 - I don't believe the Brownlees have ever attempted an Ironman distance, at least not competitively. Someone is bound to know the answer, leave a comment if you can help. Right now, the brothers are for obvious reasons focused on the Olympic distance, as is the BBC. (Olympic races are considerably shorter than Ironman ones.)

    #15 Martin - Good point although I'd argue none of those sports has experienced the same across-the-board dominance now exhibit by GB over Olympic-distance triathlon. Pentathlon's men have traditionally struggled (although in Jamie Cooke and Nick Woodbridge this year there have been glimmers of hope, mind you the weekend's Worlds were a GB washout). Perhaps you could argue decathlon and heptathlon have in the past been successes for Britain at reasonably similar times. I, personally, find the jack-of-all-trade events an excellent watch and good bang for your buck at the Games (not something you get to say often).

    #17 Liam - Have you been to Hyde Park for one of these? You should. They're very easy to watch with a fun atmosphere, and this year you could barely move in the main stretch of the course for spectators. Perhaps in comparison to athletics or football and tennis at the Games it's a minority sport, but in terms of participation and interest (and TV viewing figures) it's right up there as one of the more popular Olympic sports.

    #18 Tenniser - You see, I used to think that as well but I'm increasingly coming round to the idea that it's not the case. We only think it's all about the run because that's the denouement and, naturally, where the gaps begin to show. But you have to come through the swim and bike to get to that stage and how you do that - which breaks you follow as discussed above, what you preserve for later, what you expend there and then - directly affects what's in the tank come the run.

    So when the Brownlees roar off into the distance on the run, it's not because they're better runners than anyone else. It's usually because they've positioned themselves and paced themselves in the swim and bike to be in optimum position and condition coming into the run, so at that stage of the race they are better runners. If they went from a standing start in a straight running race without a swim or bike preceding it, they might well not win.

    Alistair won in Hyde Park without setting the fastest run time because he didn't need to, his swim and bike had set him up for the win. If drafting on the swim and bike was so easy, everyone would do it and they'd all emerge as healthy and powerful as the Brownlees for the run. But they don't, which suggests the Brits are doing something in those opening two stages which the others aren't.

  • Comment number 20.

    Hi Ollie, Hollie Avil was U23 world champion (Gold Coast), pretty sure she was only 19 at the time? A. Brownlee also held the crown in 2008.

  • Comment number 21.

    Soreshins makes a valid point about the media (BBC in particular) coverage of events like the London Marathon. Thousands of club runners train really hard to achieve their goals and are resoundingly ignored by the race commentators: if you are not either an elite athlete or carrying a fridge on your back, they aren't interested. Every year, it is the same: a great opportunity to celebrate the efforts and achievements of our club runners is missed.
    By the way Ollie, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that if you took all the elite male Olympic distance triathletes and put them in a straight 10K road race, there would only be one winner: Brownlee, A. (with Jonny and Gomez fighting it out for 2nd and 3rd)

  • Comment number 22.

    i notice that tommy2bw wrote concerning the new junior triathlone world champion ryan hanlon that any body can take part and although his time was impressive that it was not as good as the elites. well ryan has raced againsrt the elites and beat some of them on numerous occasions and his time although not as impressive as some was the 7th best time over the whole of the championship for 2011 in bejing so i do think that what ryan hanlon has achieved by his ow hard work with no british triathlone help in any way deserves a mention in its self and that on the whole what a good prospect for 2012 or 2016 if only the british triathlone would open their eyes to young up and coming athletes

  • Comment number 23.

    >> twins0411

    Ryan's time would have put him virtually last in the Junior Men's race. His swim is too slow so would have seen him leave the water well back and unless he is an awesome cyclist even with a pack he would have stood no chance to do better than the existing Brits even amongst a group who, because he would be at the top end of that age group, he should be bettering. (I don't know his age so he may even be classed an u23)

    Next up, does he want to race elite ? I don't mean go along to a race with an elite wave where racing as one he can earn a few pounds but serious elite where he devotes his life to the regime required to race for his country ? It isn't for all.

    To suggest that British Triathlon haven't got their eyes open to up and coming young talent is crazy. Aside from their staff's job being to nurture talent their funding depends on results so to ignore talented athletes would be stupid. However there have been many age groupers who have tried to go pro after good results and found that either they did not actually have the ability to make that next step up or did not want to sacrifice the security of their existing lifestyle. Great people one and all but what the GB team needs are people willing to dedicate around 15 years of their lives to whatever is required of them. You will actually find British Triathlon have and have had in place for over ten years methods of talent spotting via talent spotting days and events such as it's Inter Regional Championships.

    Reckless Rat I agree with you to a degree but have to ask how you suggest the BBC cover such events. Do you want their reporter wading in amongst all the runners, stick a microphone under a random club runners nose and start asking them questions only to find out that either a) they can't string to words together when running or b) their story is exactly the same as for the majority of virtually every other competitor and only of interest to their own family members. On the other hand a person with "a fridge on their back" generally have a reason for doing that which often gives the general public who watch the coverage something that they can admire / enjoy / relate to. I stopped watching the BBC coverage of the London Triathlon when they seemed to spend longer on their relay team than the actual elite races. However they tried the random age group stuff and it wasn't good. Such races are difficult to follow with the first in one wave finishing amongst the end runners of another. I think this is something the ITU and Paralympics people will need to address before 2016.

    In any case I would think most club runners would be more interested in their time than a few seconds of dubious fame on TV.


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