Triplets and twins leave marathon fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief
Estonian sisters finished down the field but caused quite a stir, writes Jim White
On a beautiful Rio morning, a gentle sea breeze rustling the flags of the competing nations, Jemima Sumgong was the first to arrive in the Sambodromo at the head of the field in the women’s marathon. In the stadium that hosts the annual Rio carnival, where the usual costume involves giant feather headdresses, rhinestone encrusted bikinis and vertiginously heeled shoes, the diminutive Kenyan became her country’s first female Olympic marathon winner in a time of 2hr 24min 04sec.
But it was what happened behind the fleet-footed East African that really captured the attention. This was the race of the multiple births, featuring not just two pairs of identical twins, but, for the first time in Olympic history, a set of identical triplets. All along a course that wound its way through Rio’s better heeled suburbs, sending sumptuous pictures of beachside apartment blocks and tree-lined hills across the world, were spectators suddenly alarmed that they must be suffering from double vision. At times, fans would run alongside the competitors, filming on their camera phones, perhaps to check when they got home that their eyesight was still properly functioning.
The two North Koreans, 23-yearold twins Hye-Song and HyeGeong Kim, added to the confusion by running together every step of the 26-mile course, apparently attached at the hip. Their stride in telepathic synchronicity, with barely a millimetre between them, they arrived at the line absolutely together. A photo finish could not separate them as they both timed 2-28-36 although Hye-Song was given 10th place and Hye-Geong 11th.
Lisa Hahner and Anna Hahner – 26-year-old twins representing Germany – also finished hand in hand. There will doubtless be some debate around the breakfast bar of the athlete’s village tomorrow, as their carefully coordinated sibling togetherness was not acknowledged by the officials: Anna was timed at 2-45-32, coming in 81st, a second quicker than her sister in 82nd.
The three Luik sisters running for Estonia showed no such choreographed cooperation. The first and only triplets to participate in the Olympics, the 30-year-old training partners from Tallinn were scattered across the bottom half of the field. The sisters knew before they came to Brazil that their chances of joining each other on the medal podium were remote.
With their quickest finishes significantly slower than runners like Sumgong and silver medallist Eunice Kirwa, they knew they were making up the numbers. In an odd bit of synchronisation, the times of their personal bests correspond to their birth order: Leila, marginally the oldest, is the fastest of the triplets with a personal best of 2-37-11; 2-31 faster than Liina and 3-19 faster than Lily. That order, though, was not reflected on the streets of Rio.
They started out in unison, a streak of togetherness in their blue national running kit, all wearing the same blonde-bob hairstyle. Leila was the most easily identifiable. She had more tape on her than a Christmas parcel, strapping covering her thighs and knees. But it was Liina who was first in trouble, dropping out of contention soon after passing the 10km mark. The other two battled on. They did not look as though they were enjoying themselves, their faces etched in pain.
Sponsored by the Estonian Tourist Board, with every stride they were projecting a positive image of their nation’s grit and determination. If not its capacity for victory: Lily finished 97th in 2-48-29, while Leila, the fastest sibling, trailed in 114th.
“When Liina fell behind I was like, ‘Come on, come on’ but, for me, it’s so sad because you have to push to the end,” said Lily. “I thought that maybe she’s coming and we could finish together but it was a very tough race for us.”
Leila added: “This is amazing. We started running professionally at 24, we want to inspire all people who are afraid to start so late.”
The threesome were reunited on the finish line. Professional dancers back home in Estonia – as well as fully trained lifeguards – they wrapped themselves in their national flag and conducted an unrestrained samba for the cameras, swaying their hips in perfect harmony. Their sponsor will have been thrilled.
Seeing triple: Liina, Lily and Leila Luik flew the flag for Estonia yesterday