“I’m going to throw a grenade. I believe the performance of Jan Frodeno at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship is the greatest triathlon performance in triathlon history.”
Not my words, but those tweeted by Australian triathlon legend Greg Bennett, and while the three-time Olympian might be erring a little on the hyperbolic, judging by the number of ‘likes’ there were plenty in agreement.
Given the podium in South Africa on Sunday also included Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez, it was undeniably the highest-calibre Ironman 70.3 race to date, a distance that has been gathering momentum since the world championship moved from Clearwater, Florida in 2011. But while it might have been standout in nature, it also had echoes of a former classic meeting between Brownlee, Frodeno and Gomez, almost exactly a decade earlier – the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing.
It’s uncanny how history has a knack of repeating itself. Back then, Gomez was the established force, having won 11 of his previous 13 ITU races, including the world title in Vancouver two months earlier. Frodeno arrived in China after a consistent season, but was far from a gold medal favourite. Brownlee had qualified late and was the wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old out to ruffle feathers.
In Port Elizabeth at the weekend, Gomez had the 70.3 pedigree, having twice stood atop the world championship podium. Frodeno was an established performer, true, but with questionable footspeed to challenge his younger rivals. And Brownlee, despite impressive outings in Utah and Dubai, was still a comparative novice at the distance.
The comparisons don’t end there. Once the gun went and the swim had whittled the lead pack down to eight, the Yorkshireman – just as in 2008 – was a main aggressor, forcing a hard bike leg and taking off early on the run. And just as in China, while Brownlee couldn’t sustain the early pace, neither, ultimately, could Gomez, who clawed his way up to Frodeno before dropping back complaining of a stitch.
Frodeno emerged once again the triumphant, claiming a second 70.3 title to go with two full Ironman world crowns and that Beijing gold, with an emotional outpouring to match. This time, Brownlee stayed strong for second and was magnanimous in his reaction. It may not have been the result he desired, but returning to the gold-medal winning run form of London 2012 is asking a lot of a battle-worn body.
Just as in 2008 – although for differing reasons – he looked happy to be able to compete and relish what the future at this format holds. For Gomez, the disappointment, as with the fourth place in Beijing, was palpable. The final step on the podium in Nelson Mandela Bay being scant consolation for his efforts.
What’s perhaps most striking is the ability for the triumvirate to be racing one another – and still breaking new ground at the top level of the sport – 10 years apart. The opportunity for this longevity sets triathlon apart, but the story doesn’t end here. Injury and illness not withstanding, Frodeno and Gomez will renew their rivalry in Kona next month in one of the most eagerly awaited men’s Ironman World Championships to date. And while we might have to wait until after Tokyo 2020 for Brownlee to join them – and Frodeno will be pushing past 40 – at least it shouldn’t take another 10 years.