Mike Rowbottom

As we were reminded yesterday by what happened at the Birmingham International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League meeting, sport has the technology in place to establish even the narrowest of winning margins.

The late surge of Britain's Adam Gemili appeared to have taken him past Yohan Blake at the finish of the men's 100 metres – but it hadn't. 

While both men were credited with a time of 10.07sec, the Jamaican was faster by eight thousandths of a second.

For Gemili it was tough – but them's the rules. It could have been worse. Blake's compatriot Merlene Ottey was beaten by one thousandth of a second by Gail Devers of the United States in the women's 100m final at the 1993 IAAF World Championships.

That's what sport, certainly at elite level, is about. Trying to win. And determining who has won.

So when elite athletes prioritise something other than winning – such as holding hands as they cross the finish line – it is no wonder that there is a juddering disconnect with the system in which that union takes place. 

"Computer says no…"

You can see the International Triathlon Union's (ITU) difficulty following the decision by British triathletes Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown to share tangibly a moment as they came home well clear in sweltering heat at last Thursday's (August 15) Tokyo 2020 test event.

In so doing, they had transgressed a recently drafted ITU rule – rule 2:11f – which states that triathletes must not "finish in a contrived tie situation where no effort to separate the finish times has been made".

While Learmonth was initially given the victory after a photo finish – you cannot even dead-heat if you want to these days – she and Taylor-Brown were swiftly disqualified.

The rule change had been prompted by the incident at a similarly furnace-like race in Mexico three years ago when Britain's Jonny Brownlee, who needed to win to earn the world title, began to stagger as he succumbed to heatstroke 700 metres from the line.

His elder brother Alistair, the double Olympic champion, saw his plight and supported him to the line, jettisoning his young sibling into second place behind South Africa's Henri Schoeman, who had overtaken the labouring pair in the final few metres.

Brownlee's second position meant he finished four points behind Spain's Mario Mola in the overall standings – but he was not disqualified. 

Were such a thing to happen again, he would be, as the ITU rules specifies: "An athlete cannot physically assist the forward progress of another athlete on any part of the course. This will result in both athletes being disqualified."

But here's the thing. The wider world remembers and celebrates such moments as the Brownlee brothers support act, or the British triathletes' sweltering sharing. It speaks to something within us that goes even deeper than the satisfaction of winning. 

It is a bit mysterious, in fact. And very powerful.

Germany's twins, Lisa and Anna Hahner, hold hands at the finish of the Rio 2016 women's marathon ©Getty Images
Germany's twins, Lisa and Anna Hahner, hold hands at the finish of the Rio 2016 women's marathon ©Getty Images

Alistair Brownlee's "he ain't heavy, he's my brother" assistance was generated by deep fraternal instinct and was universally comprehensible.

There was a look of joy on the faces of the two British triathletes in Tokyo last week that was about more than winning. The same radiant look was on the faces of Germany's twins, Lisa and Anna Hahner, as they crossed the line in the Rio 2016 women's marathon hand-in-hand.

German Athletics Federation director Thomas Kurschilgen was not best pleased, announcing that it looked as if the twins had competed in a fun run.

"Victory and medals are not the only goal," he told the New York Times. 

"Still, every athlete in the Olympic competitions should be motivated to demonstrate his or her best performance and aim for the best possible result."

Learmonth and Taylor-Brown were reported to be too upset to comment on their controversial disqualification. But it seems very likely that their decision was spur-of-the-moment, rather than planned.

Such was the case with what stands as the most famous example of winners crossing the line holding hands, which took place in the first London Marathon of 1981, when Norway's Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley of the US were credited as joint winners in 2 hours 11min 48sec after finishing together.

Reflecting on the circumstances ahead of the 35th running of the London Marathon in 2015, Beardsley recalled that he had suggested the idea to his rival near the end of a race in which each had tried to surge and break the other.

Simonsen told The Independent: "I don't think I would have suggested it but, when he asked me, I thought, 'why not?' 

"I never thought about doing that before or after."

Dick Beardsley, left, and Inge Simonsen en-route to a famous finish at the first London Marathon in 1981 ©Getty Images
Dick Beardsley, left, and Inge Simonsen en-route to a famous finish at the first London Marathon in 1981 ©Getty Images

Beardsley said: "It's funny, because people have asked over the years, 'were you afraid to lose?' and I was like 'no'. 

"Inge could have said 'forget you, buddy', and we wouldn't be sitting here talking. So it wasn't about the idea of not winning, it just happened."

Rather than discouraging the practice, the London Marathon organisers celebrated it, launching a #handinhand hashtag to encourage other runners to emulate that first gesture of common purpose.

Beardsley added: "I remember when I got home people were talking about the two of us coming over the finish line and the sportsmanship of the day as much as the win."

And people will always celebrate this instance of a moment when the point of sport alters from being competitive to celebratory, reaching out a hand to us as humans rather than spectators.