Norway has its first Olympic triathlon medal thanks to an epic display of strength and stamina from 27-year-old, Kristian Blummenfelt.
Pulling ahead in the final few hundred metres of the sixth Olympic triathlon men’s final, the 2021 WTCS Yokohama winner crossed the line for gold ahead of GB’s Alex Yee, who was racing in his first Games.
Fellow debutante New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde collected bronze.
In an attempt to escape the suffocating Tokyo heat, it was the earliest start yet for an Olympic triathlon event, with 51 of the world’s best male triathletes taking to the floating pontoon for the 6:30am start in Odaiba Marine Park.
Whoever was driving the RIB just in front of said pontoon, however, clearly still hadn’t woken up, as it hadn’t moved out of the field of play when the starting klaxon sounded, resulting in a false start.
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Take two and it was a clean getaway in the non-wetsuit, bath-like 30°C waters. With swim specialist Richard Varga (Slovakia) failing to qualify, race favourite and reigning world champion Vincent Luis (FRA) took control from the front, exiting first after the initial 950m lap and again after the second and final 550m.
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Out of T1, the Frenchman stormed off with four other athletes, including Rio bronze medallist Henri Schoeman (RSA) and test event winner Tyler Mislawchuk (CAN). Half a lap later, though, and the group had doubled in size, welcoming two-time Olympic medallist Jonny Brownlee to the lead-group party.
The new chase group now included recent Leeds WTCS winner Yee (GBR), 2019 WTCS Grand Final winner Blummenfelt (NOR), test event runner-up Caspar Stornes (NOR) and Leeds WTCS 2019 winner Jacob Birtwhistle (AUS), all sitting 18-20 secs down for the first couple of laps.
Meanwhile the Spanish trio of Javier Gomez (five-time world champion and London Olympics silver medallist), Mario Mola (three-time world champion) and Fernando Alarza (regular top-10 WTCS finisher) had a shaky start, hitting T1 45secs off the pace and forming the third pack.
Outside favourite Morgan Pearson of the US had been in the initial lead group of 10 when he was handed a 15sec penalty for failing to place his kit in his box correctly in T1. He’d take his penalty on the 10k run, the section where many had expected him to excel.
With so many strong cyclists spread across the course, it was only a matter of time before that first-pack advantage was whittled down. And sure enough, at the halfway mark the ‘lead’ pack had swelled to almost the entire field – 38 athletes, setting up the sixth men’s Olympic Games for a 10k to end all 10ks.
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Reminiscent of a 20-year-old Alistair Brownlee leading the 10k at the Beijing Olympics, Yee settled into his happy place at the head of the four-lap run. But whereas Brownlee senior was a year off hitting form at the 2008 Games, Yee, 23, has found it in 2021, the year-delay playing perfectly into his hands.
The first big names to succumb to the heat included the Spanish trio and Luis, the latter’s teammate Dorian Coninx instead flying the French flag in the lead group of nine.
Five kilometres in and it was still Yee leading from Wilde, Blummenfelt, Kevin McDowell (USA) and Brownlee. The American went first, then it was Brownlee dropping to an agonising fourth place.
With one lap to go the podium places were being traded between Yee, Blummenfelt and test event bronze medallist Wilde.
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But with half a lap left it was Blummenfelt who kicked for the line; the 27-year-old finding an extra gear to sprint clear from his two young(er) chasers to take Norway’s first-ever triathlon medal after 1:45:04, wrapping himself in the winner’s tape before collapsing to the floor, throwing up, having a brief sit down in a wheelchair and then attending to his media duties!
Yee followed for silver, Wilde, 23, in third for bronze.
Mola ran in for 10th; Luis 13th; and Gomez, in his final Olympics, in 25th.
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“It’s unreal,” said Blummenfelt at the finish. “I was listening to a podcast a few days ago, where they had Simon Whitfield, Hamish Carter, Jan Frodeno and Alistair Brownlee, all the previous Olympic gold medallists in the sport. And now that I’m next in line of those names, surreal. To be able to bring it home, is unbelievable.”
A visibly disappointed Yee was more jubilant in his post-race reaction, telling the BBC: “It’s a bit bizarre really, it’s really crazy, dreams really do come true. To come away with second is the best I could come away with today. I’m just over the moon. I’m really excited for Paris now.”
Unable to add a final individual medal to his Olympic haul, Brownlee ran in for fifth behind Belgium’s Marten Van Riel: “That was really really tough, I gave it everything I got,” said the London bronze and Rio silver medallist. “I was proud of the prep I put in and the race that I did.
“It wasn’t a fairytale ending to finish without a gold medal, but I have the relay on Saturday. Congratulations to Alex, though, he’s an incredible athlete. He deserves that medal, and I’m just pleased he’s in our team on Saturday.”
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Images credit: Tommy Zaferes and Wagner Araujo (@wags.photo) / World Triathlon