In a different world, Alex Yee might’ve been on the British athletics team at these Olympic Games.
For a long time through the junior ranks considered the country’s great, post-Mo Farah distance hope, as recently as 2018, the Lewisham-born youngster was winning the senior national 10,000m title on the track at Parliament Hill, and only last year he ran the second-fastest ever road 5km by a British athlete.
But as he crossed the finish line at Tokyo’s Odaiba Marine Park early on Monday morning, having come oh-so-close to being crowned the Olympic triathlon champion, it’s fair to say he made the right call. The 23-year-old produced a gutsy swim, a powerful bike ride and then let his supreme running talent take over to seal Team GB’s second silver medal of these Games, beaten only by the grit of Kristian Blummenfelt. So spent was the Norwegian that he celebrated gold by puking after the line and had to be helped away in a wheelchair, with New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde taking third.
Yee’s display continued Britain’s magnificent record in this event after Alistair Brownlee’s back-to-back gold medals in London and Rio and few would bet against an athlete of his youth and talent going one better in Paris in three years time.
The younger Bronwlee, Jonny, had won bronze and silver behind his brother at the past two Games, but came home fifth and must wait to complete his set, at least until the new mixed relay on Saturday, where Britain must surely now have a favourite’s chance.
With temperatures already above 26 degrees on what felt like the coolest morning of the Games so far, you could see why organisers had opted for an ungodly 6:30am start time, but that was pushed a little later after a farcical set of events that saw the starting klaxon sound while half the field’s entry to the water was being blocked by a boat. Those in the firing line either, sensibly, kept their feet dry or else dived in anyway and had a lucky escape, but the unimpeded half of the pack were away and only 150metres later were they halted by a team of jet skis and speedboats, having unsurprisingly been oblivious to the frantic flag waving of the hapless officials on the pontoon behind them.
Typhoon Nepartak is heading Tokyo’s way but, with the waters calm for now, it was Storm Vincent Luis tearing across the bay when things eventually got going as France’s 2019 and 2020 world champion set a searing pace, exiting the water first, with Brownlee only five seconds behind in eighth and Yee half-a-minute adrift.
A group of five briefly threatened to break away on the first lap on the bike but Brownlee, after a scratchy transition, was part of a quartet that was quickly on their tails and the Yorkshireman was soon forcing the issue from the front.
Luxembourg’s Stefan Zachaus made the first real solo attack at the midway point of the 40km bike section but his attempt was short-lived and with two of the eight bike laps to go just three seconds split the main group of 37 riders, both Brownlee and Yee among them. A late gamble from someone was inevitable and it came from Switzerland’s Andrea Salvisberg, who entered the final transition 16 seconds clear of his rivals but the gap never looked like sticking and sure enough Yee was soon eating up the tarmac between them.
At the peak of his track powers, the Brit was a sub-28-minute 10km man, but the question here was how much did he have left in the legs? For a while it looked like plenty.
With 5km - or the distance of your local Parkrun (Yee’s run the second-fastest ever one of those, too) - left to go, he surged, taking Wilde and Blummenfelt with him. The medals were between the three, with Brownlee battling along isolated and unable to cling on in fourth, and at that point you would have made the grimacing Norwegian the outsider.
But as first Wilde and then, finally, Yee showed signs of strain the 27-year-old made the decisive move, kicking clear to win by 11 seconds from Yee, whose punch of the air as he took silver told you all you needed to know about what had been a monstrous performance.