By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - This was no ordinary Saturday morning in Hyde Park.
What is normally an oasis of calm in the heart of London, a place for reading, roller-blading and relaxation, was transformed into the stage for one of the most dramatic battles that will be witnessed at these Olympic Games.
With thousands of fans, 10 deep in places, craning their necks around the edge of the Serpentine Lake, more than 50 of the world's best female triathletes dived into the chilly waters for the first leg of one of the sport's most grueling events.
After churning away for 1,500m, they clambered ashore to their waiting bikes lined up neatly on the blue-carpeted transition zone, pedaled furiously for 43km around some of London's most famous tourist attractions, then gritted their teeth for a leg-sapping 10km dash for glory.
Two hours after they set off, with much sweat and blood and tears shed along the way, the length of a mobile phone, roughly 15cm, was all that separated Switzerland's gold medalist Nicola Spirig from Sweden's runner-up Lisa Norden.
Welcome to the insane world of triathlon.
Initially it looked like a dead heat, with the finish line scoreboard showing both had clocked one hour 59 mins 48 secs.
That would have been the perfect scenario as both deserved gold, however photographic evidence favored Spirig who became Switzerland's second Olympic champion in triathlon after Brigitte McMahon won on the sport's debut in Sydney.
The official photograph showed that Norden's head crossed the line first but the rules specify that the torso is the crucial factor when deciding who had won.
"When I looked at the timing board I thought "bother!", said Norden, as the bloodied rivals consoled each other at the finish.
"I always seem to be just on the wrong side of these decimals. But I'm pretty happy with silver.
"I'm just glad we don't have to have a re-run for dead heats because that would have killed me.
"The crowd was crazy today, there was a noise barrier all the way round and this was something I don't think I will experience ever again."
There was disappointment for British hope Helen Jenkins, who faded to finish fifth after being in the leading group on the last circuit of the park, but few of the tens of thousands of fans who witnessed the sporting theatre will forget it either.
While the race could only have one winner, the sport once again earned gold.
International Triathlon Union (ITU) president Marisol Casado, who is also an IOC member, said the Olympics and triathlon were a marriage made in heaven.
"This was a great day for the sport," she told Reuters close to the finish line, as the men's triathletes tested out their bikes for Tuesday's race.
"It's a new sport and has a good appeal to young people and everybody in general. It's about a lifestyle. It's something very dynamic and easy to follow for the fans because the first one to arrive is the winner.
"The values of the athletes are great, we are proud that it's a clean sport. And from the point of view of the organizing committee it's a great way to show the city.
"Also we don't need big stadiums, we use nature," she added. "And in that respect we are lucky because in four years in Rio we will be in Copacabana!"
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
BREAKING: Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Gang of Eight Immigration Reform Bill | Daniel Doherty
Whoa: US Hasn't Detained Five Benghazi Terrorists Due to Trial-Related Evidentiary Concerns | Guy Benson