Great Britain’s triathlon success should inspire a new generation of athletes, says Steve Trew
I doubt you’d get too much argument at the moment if you said that Great Britain was dominating world triathlon. The ITU season ended with another British world champion (Non Stanford) and two silver medals (Jonny Brownlee and Jodie Stimpson), not to mention another three WTS victories for Alistair Brownlee. At Ironman distance, we have at least a third of the top 20 women. Only in men’s Ironman-distance racing is GB lacking, but with the talent emerging in half-Ironman, the future looks bright.
Why should this be? Why, where once Australia – remember their women’s team taking the top five places at the 1999 Montreal Worlds? – and the USA dominated, is it now us? Take a bow, Chrissie Wellington MBE. Take a bow also, Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing. Another round of applause, please, for Helen Jenkins. Because it’s these guys – a little while back for Spence and Simon, much more recently for Jenks and Chrissie – who set the scene, who showed that it wasn’t necessary to live on the sun-bleached beaches of Southern California or the Gold Coast to be the best in the world. Actually, it was better to be from gritty Yorkshire or the Welsh valleys.
Alistair, Jonny, Non – where they’re going now, that’s the direction of the future. Give me a role model, give me an X factor, and I’ll show you a future. We’ve previously seen, in different sports, countries dominating for a number of years. Think sprints on the track: it seemed that the USA would dominate forever. And now? Jamaica, of course. Role model and X factor? A certain Mr Bolt. Think heavyweight boxing: USA forever. And now? Long gone. Think middle-distance running in the 80s: Great Britain, of course! Where Steve Ovett and Seb Coe led, Steve Cram, Peter Elliot, Steve Crabb and others quickly followed. Steve Crabb couldn’t even get into the GB team for a while, even though he was ranked fourth in the world. Why? Because he was also ranked fourth in Great Britain. That’s dominance exemplified.
We’ve also seen periods of domination by countries when all the evidence has pointed to substance abuse. Think the East Germans in swimming and track-and-field in the 70s and 80s. Think also of specific sports where evidence has come to light of widespread doping – cycling is the obvious example. And the tough thing is that once the mud has stuck, it’s very hard to remove.
The window of opportunity
It wasn’t that long ago – seems like yesterday, in fact – that many of our top athletes of today were racing at under-23 level. Now, it may not have been a smooth transition for all of them, but it hasn’t been too bumpy either. And where role models go, others will happily follow, because that groundbreaking work has been done. The stage has been more than set – it’s been dominated. “If they can, I can!” – so it goes. “If the guys I know can be the best in the world then, thank you very much, so can I.”
Remember the four-minute mile? Of course you do. Some people said it could never be done – “Nah, it’s impossible, the body will self-combust!” And when Roger Bannister went out and did it? All of a sudden, the impossible became very possible indeed, and the sub four-minute guys multiplied rapidly.
From the athletics world, the wonderful Michael Johnson and the wonderful Steve Ovett have spoken eloquently about that ‘window of opportunity’. The step up from junior and U23 level is huge, but you can’t take too long to bridge it. There’s no guarantee that a good junior will become a good senior, but there’s also no guarantee that an average junior can’t make that breakthrough – Simon Whitfield placed 10th in his final junior year at the World Championships and five years later he topped the podium at the Sydney Olympics.
One thing’s for sure, though – the promising, even world-leading, junior only has so long to make it in the senior ranks. My good friend and super swim-coach Dan Bullock says: “When I raced at Nationals as a 14-year-old, there were 40 of us in my event. Four years later at the Olympic trials, there were just two of us.” That’s exactly how quick it is: one Olympic cycle and the world has changed, maybe beyond recognition.