A dazed Jonny Brownlee was helped over the line by his brother Alistair, who shunned the chance to win the race to come to the aid of his younger sibling in a dramatic end to the World Triathlon Series in Cozumel, Mexico.
Jonny went into the final race of the season in second place in the standings behind the Spaniard Mario Mola, with the Olympic champion Alistair out of contention having missed earlier races.
The younger Brownlee needed to win the race and Mola finish no higher than fourth, and that was exactly what looked set to happen after the brothers had again pushed the pace hard on the swim and bike legs.
Jonny was leading comfortably heading into the final kilometre of the 10km run but then the heat began to take its toll and he started to weave across the course. The South African Henri Schoeman, who won bronze behind the Brownlees in Rio, overtook Jonny to win the race.
Jonny stopped at the side of the road but Alistair, who had been running comfortably in third, put his arm around his brother and all but carried him along the final few hundred metres and then pushed him across the line. There was a protest against the Brownlees’ finish, but under triathlon rules assistance from other competitors is allowed and by finishing second with Mola in fifth, it was the Spaniard who took the title by only four points.
Alistair suffered similar drama in Hyde Park in 2010, and he told the BBC: “If it happened to anyone I would have helped them across the line because it’s an awful position to be in. If he’d conked out before the finish line and there wasn’t medical support it could have been really dangerous. It was a natural human reaction to my brother but for anyone I would have done the same thing. I think it’s as close to death as you can be in sport.”
The brothers provided one of the lasting images of the Rio 2016 Olympics – Alistair pulling away from Jonny in the final kilometre of the race to take gold before the pair collapsed to the floor and embraced beyond the finishing line.
Not that Alistair was all sympathy in Cozumel, with the two-times Olympic champion adding: “I wish the flipping idiot had just paced it right and won the race. He could have jogged the last 2km.”
Jonny later tweeted from his hospital bed: “Not how I wanted to end the season, but gave it everything. Thanks @AliBrownleetri, your loyalty is incredible.”
An appeal by the Spanish Triathlon Federation to disqualify Jonny Brownlee for accepting assistance to get over the line was dismissed by the International Triathlon Union, citing a rule which states athletes may accept help.
And in an interview on the ITU website, newly-crowned champion Mola admitted the dramatic circumstances of his victory took some of the shine off his success.
Mola said: “First of all this was not how I wanted to win the world championship. Luckily I was able to be in the top five considering Jonny didn’t win the race.
“To be honest I was already considering that the role of AIistair was to help Jonny. Considering that, I thought, well, I’m going to be second again, but at least I will fight to the end.
“And when I heard Jonny isn’t feeling well, I thought, ‘I need to fight to the end’. We want everyone to be safe after the finish line. It’s not the way I wanted it, but that’s triathlon.”