With less than a half-mile to go in the World Triathlon Final in Cozumel, Mexico on September 18, 2016, Great Britain’s Johnny Brownlee seemed to have a win in the bag. His performance was so dominating, his lead so commanding, that race commentators emphatically stated, “he’s done what he’s needed to do,” including having “dealt with the brutal heat.” The world title, they claimed, would be Jonny’s.
As though the commentator’s confidence cast a sudden spell on Jonny, the 26-year-old star, who’d just a month before picked up a silver medal at the Rio Games, began to show obvious signs of heat stroke. His stride became oddly stunted and bouncy and a slight grimace cast over his face. As he rounded one of the final turns toward the finish line, it seemed like the road below his feet had sloped sideways and he struggled to stay upright. His gait, once solid and assured, shifted to an awkward shuffle, his shoulders pitched back, his eyes glazed over in a trance-like expression.
As he crossed one of the bright blue arches set up before the finish line, Jonny slowed to a wobble. Perhaps he thought he’d crossed the line. Perhaps he was just done. But the race, of course, was not over. Jonny had about 50 meters left to run. And, as the clearly confused athlete stumbled into an official’s arms, it appeared his race was over.
But Brownlee’s brother, Alistair, then 28, wasn’t about to have Johnny’s day end there. No more than seven seconds after Johnny slowed, Alistair–who had been in an epic foot battle with South Africa’s Henri Schoeman–surged around the corner and came upon his struggling sibling. Without hesitation, Alistair swooped under his head under Jonny’s shoulder, slung his arm over his back, and barked out, “you can make it!” as he began leading him towards the finish line. And thus began one of the most iconic moments not only in the history of triathlon–but in all of sport.
Because for about 45 exhilarating, chill-and-tear-inducing seconds, Alistair painstakingly guided his brother down the blue carpeted home stretch, arm-in arm, choppy stride for choppy stride. As Schoeman sprinted toward the finisher tape and took the win, all eyes shifted to the stunning display of sportsmanship and brotherly love. The older brother sacrificed his own race–and possible victory–to help his younger sibling finish, literally tossing him across the finish line so he could hold onto second position. The footage from the race went viral almost immediately and the story made headlines all over the world. Even J.K. Rowling and celeb chef Gordon Ramsay tweeted about it; Ramsay called it an “truly inspirational act of sportsmanship.”
For his part, Alistair, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2012 and 2016), was fairly nonchalant about his deed. He recalled being in a similar position at a 2010 race in London’s Hyde Park and the feeling of helplessness as competitors streamed by him. “I swore if it happened to anyone, I’d help them across the line. It’s an awful position to be in,” he said. “I didn’t give it a second thought.”
Jonny, who was taken to a nearby hospital and went on to make a full recovery, later praised his brother for his selflessness. “Alistair had the chance to win but threw that away to help me out,” he said. “I’ll be thankful for the rest of my life.”
The following year, the Brownlee’s display prompted new rules that disqualify any athletes from “physically assisting the forward progress” of another on the course. Meaning a moment like theirs will never happen again in ITU racing–at least not legally.