Hyde Park hosted a Lollapalooza today, but instead of showcasing music, this was a celebration of endurance, striated muscle and glycogen. A raucous crowd estimated at 200,000 gathered, mostly on the banks of The Serpentine, the lake in the middle of the park. Helicopters circled under cloudy but, significantly, rain-free skies. An emcee warmed up the crowd before the main event. The occasion was the men's triathlon, one of the few Olympic events that fans could attend free of charge.
One of the highlights of these London Games came Saturday night when Britain's Jessica Ennis won the pentathlon; today, Team GB prospected another gold (No. 19) at another multi-discipline event. Alistair Brownlee ran away from the field, quite literally, winning the race in 1:46:25, and Brownlee's younger brother, Jonathan, took bronze, finishing barely a half-minute later. The fast-growing sport's answer to the Williams sisters had designs of finishing the race at precisely the same time, but organizers told them it would violate the rules. Still, it was a smashing day for the family.
By the time the third British entrant cross the finish line, the Brownlees had finished hugging and were headed off to a thicket of television cameras. Countless happy fans had already started folding their picnic blankets and heading to the Tube stations. Stuart Hayes finished in 37th place, 4:34 behind Alistair. And he was thrilled.
Hayes, you see, served as the British team's domestique. While we're accustomed to these "servants" in the Tour de France, it's strange to see this species in the Olympics. Domestiques are akin to sparring partners or, if you want to skew gauche, fluffers in adult movies. Their job is to help train and prepare the stars. During the actual event, they take part in the competition, but don't have genuine ambitions of winning.
Make no mistake, Hayes, 33, is a world-class triathlete. A decade ago, he finished third in the ITU U23 World Championship. He was a reserve for the Athens Olympics in 2004, and he qualified for London on his own merit. He has his own coach, Michelle Dillon; she's a two-time Olympian who, conveniently, doubles as his wife.
But lately, his role has been an aide-de-camp to Alistair, 24, and Jonny, 22. He trains with them in high altitude of Switzerland and in Leeds, the brothers' hometown. But what are his responsibilities during the race?
"Basically," says Hayes, "I need to make the Brownlees are protected and make sure the pace is high because when [the pack] bunches, that's when crashes happen."
He did precisely that today. Sheathed in a wetsuit and swimming alongside the Brownlees in the Serpentine, Hayes finished the 1500 meter first leg in eighth place out of the 54 competitors, two spots behind Alistair and four spots behind Jonny. During the 43-km cycling phase, Hayes protected the brothers from the kind of collision that knocked out Simon Whitfield of Canada, the silver medalist in Beijing. Hayes set the pace for the leaders as they orbited the park and Buckingham Palace seven times. An hour into the race, Hayes was, oddly, in first place.
Domestique, schmomestique. This is the Olympics. Did he ever consider going off-script and trying to win a medal himself? "Oh, I'm too old," he said laughing. "It's not [about] me. It's about the two Brownlees."
Sure enough, Hayes faded on the last lap of the cycling. Clearly depleted, he jogged the last segment, and was passed more than a dozen other competitors. By that point, though, the Brownlees were in good shape. Alistair opened a lead over Spain's Javier Gomez and, with half of Britain cheering him on, won by a comfortable margin of 11 seconds -- a marked departure from the women's triathlon on Saturday, which, after nearly two hours, was a photo finish. Despite a 15-second penalty for pedaling too soon in the transition to cycling, Johnny finished third.
Half an hour or so after the race, Hayes had recovered physically and walked off the track, mostly alone, having yet to see his teammates. But his face was illuminated with a smile.
"What a great day," he said, surely the happiest 37th place finisher at these Games. "This is as good as it gets for me."
"I might try some half Ironmans."
"But what now. How are you going to celebrate?"
"Oh, we'll go to the pub tonight, have a few beers"
Why not? They all did their jobs.