Britain’s grip on the Olympic men’s triathlon is over - but only just. Four years ago, Alex Yee posted a message to himself on social media: “Do your best in what you love and maybe one day you’ll be the greatest.”
For so long it looked as though he was about to deliver on those words by following in Alistair Brownlee’s footsteps and becoming Olympic champion. That he ended up with silver behind Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt was a significant achievement.
A supremely talented track runner, Yee had a plan that was evident to everyone before they even landed in Tokyo. It is the same in every triathlon race he contests. Stay as close as he can on the swim, do the same on the bike… and then hit go once he has trainers on his feet.
To have come so close to delivering it to perfection on the biggest stage of all is some effort for a 23-year-old competing at his debut Olympics, leaving double medalist Jonny Brownlee - who finished fifth - in his wake.
“It doesn’t feel quite real that it’s me,” said Yee. “I still just feel like a normal boy from south-east London and I hope I can just serve as an inspiration to many people that this is possible.
“I’m not anything special. I just really enjoy sport and I’m really lucky that it’s me.”
The race had begun with chaotic - and potentially dangerous - scenes when a speedboat containing television cameras positioned itself right in front of the startline, preventing half the field from diving in at the sound of the starting hooter.
While dozens of competitors stood still on the pontoon, the other half - including Yee - had their heads down, swimming all of 150 metres before another boat was dispatched to intercept them and send them back to the start.
To their credit, neither of the two Brits were much troubled by the episode afterwards. Brownlee said it helped “chill everyone out”, while Yee joked: “If I had a different result I’d have said it was unfair but it’s fine now.”
There were no problems at the second start, and it was Brownlee who emerged first of the two-strong British contingent from the 1.5km Tokyo Bay swim, 10 seconds behind the leader, with Yee a further 20 seconds back as he jumped on his bike. First part done for Yee.
By the time they were halfway through the 40km cycle, a group of 37 athletes had developed into one big pack at the front. It had become anyone’s race and it would come down to foot speed alone: an equal playing field for more than half of those who started the race. Second part done for Yee.
As a teenager, he ran the fastest 5,000m for a British junior since 1981 - quicker than Mo Farah. By the time he was 20, he posted the second-fastest UK parkrun time in history.
Now it was a question of whether he could use his prodigious running pedigree to get on the Olympic podium.
From the front, he opted to do things his own way, dictating proceedings and attempting to stretch the field out. At halfway in the 10km run, there were eight remaining. As he entered for the final 2.5km lap it was down to three: Yee, Blummenfelt and Hayden Wilde, of New Zealand.
It was no longer a case of whether he would win a medal, but what colour it would be.
When Blummenfelt passed him approaching the final kilometre, Yee could not respond. Victory for the Norwegian came in one hour 45 minutes and four seconds. Yee was just 11 seconds behind.
“I think I probably timed it a little bit wrong, leaving it a little bit late to close the gap,” said Yee. “Once I got halfway across it I was pretty cooked, I was starting to feel the heat and stuff.
“Kristian was the better man on the day. Second was the best result for me on the day.”
It capped a remarkable recovery from a brutal crash in 2017 that had inflicted serious physical damage on Yee and could easily have been so much worse. It occurred when he hit a concrete bollard at high speed while out on his bike in Cagliari, Italy, and was knocked unconscious. The crash fractured his ribs and vertebrae, as well as giving him a collapsed lung. He was in hospital for a month and faced a tough journey back.
In 2018, he claimed the British 10,000m title on the track and showed he would be a name to watch here in Tokyo by winning the final World Series race in Leeds last month.
That victory, he said, wiped any lingering doubts he had about not belonging among the world’s elite. He was worthy. Now he has an Olympic silver medal to prove it.
After bronze in 2012 and silver in 2016, Brownlee said he had no regrets about anything leading up to his fifth-place finish in Tokyo.
“I gave it everything - I don’t think I could have done much more than that,” he said. “I’ve got to be proud of myself. I’ve trained as hard as I could, raced as hard as I could, raced as smartly as I could and that’s what I had.
He also confirmed his time as an Olympic triathlete was over, with his plan to now follow his brother Alistair in stepping up in distance.
The Brownlee era is over; welcome to the Yee years.
Brownlee proclaims: 'Yee can dominate the sport'
by Ben Bloom, in Tokyo
Jonny Brownlee predicted Britain’s new triathlon star Alex Yee can “dominate the sport” for years to come after the Olympic debutant won a brilliant silver medal on Monday morning.
Yee, a prodigious track runner in his youth, completed his plan to near-perfection at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo, sticking as close to the leaders as possible on the swim and bike before seizing control of the race on the run.
Dictating from the front, he steadily thinned out the field, only for Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt to pass him in the closing stages and consign him to silver.
That continued the British presence on the men’s triathlon podium after Alistair Brownlee’s victories in 2012 and 2016, in which his brother Jonny claimed bronze and silver.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Jonny, who finished fifth in Monday’s race. “I’ve seen him come through. He was in Leeds for a couple of years training and he’s an unbelievable talent.
“He’s a great runner, he’s got a great head on him and knows how to race. He doesn’t let the big occasion worry him and he’s now converted himself into a great all-round triathlete.
“He deserves that. Alex has got the ability now to dominate this sport. People are going to have to keep working out how to beat him because if they are not careful he’s going to win lots and lots of races.”
With Alistair failing to qualify for these Olympics and Jonny confirming he now intends to step up in distance, there is a definite sense of one era ending as the emergence of Yee, 23, marks a new dawn for British men’s triathlon.
Yee was quick to pay tribute to the brothers’ legacy after winning silver.
“Jonny still came fifth in this race - that’s pretty incredible,” he said. “For him to race so well was brilliant, there’s certainly a lot of life in him.
“It’s hard to say what those guys will do but legends never die and they’ll always have created that legacy. They brought up our sport of triathlon because it isn’t what it was before they started and now it’s got the platform. I hope I can kind of do the same.”
On his future, Yee said: “I still feel like I’m a child of the sport. I’m going into every race trying to learn things.
“If I can carry on improving my swim then I can be a bit higher up and be in the race every time. That’s the goal for me, just to become the complete athlete rather than be winning everything; fame and money. I just want to be the best athlete I can be.”
As a teenager, Yee ran the fastest 5,000m for a British junior since 1981 - quicker than Mo Farah. By the time he was 20, he posted the second-fastest UK parkrun time in history and claimed the British 10,000m title on the track as recently as 2018. He also represented Britain in the 2019 European Cross Country Championships.
Asked about his running ability, he revealed: “I’m definitely not finished with track.”
For Jonny, who will join forces with Yee in Saturday’s mixed relay, his time as an Olympic triathlete is now over as he follows his brother Alistair into longer-distance events.
“It will definitely be my last Olympics,” he said. “I want to get a good medal on Saturday - we’ve got a good, strong team.
“Then I want to go to long-distance racing. I think now it’s time to do some racing that I really enjoy - different challenges, different races and enjoy that for a couple of years.
“I feel like I’ve had a really good go at these major games now.”