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From left: triplets Lily Luik, Liina Luik and Leila Luik of Estonia dance at the finish line after competing in the women’s marathon on Sunday.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

When Leila Luik crossed the finish line in Rio, 114th in the women's marathon, her two sisters were there to wrap her in the blue-and-white Estonian flag and put their teary faces together. But it wasn't the finish that the first-ever triplets to compete in the Olympics had envisioned. Liina Luik dropped out at the 20-kilometre mark and was ferried to the finish in a van; Lily had a good race and finished six minutes ahead of Leila at 97th.

The triplets were denied the feel-good photo finish of German twins Anna and Lisa Hahner, who had crossed the line three minutes earlier, holding hands.

It was clear the Luiks were divided in their emotions, even as they posed together for the cameras; Lily was beaming with an endorphin flush, while tiny tears trickled down Liina's cheeks even as she smiled fixedly.

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"We saw that at 20 kilometres, she was cheering us [from the side]," Lily said about Liina. "It was surprising – a bad surprise – so I started to push double –" Here, Leila picked up the sentence "– to run for Liina –" And Liina ended it: "– they run for me also."

Liina said it was hip pain that forced her out of the race. "At 15 kilometres, I started feeling very much pain. …In every kilometre, I hope that the pain is going away, but no."

Regardless of the race results, the Luik sisters have succeeded in one of their stated goals for the Olympics, boosting Estonia's profile, and their own. They danced together for the television cameras, as exhausted runners crossed the line, collapsed and were carted off to the medical tent behind them.

And when the interviews were done, they were headed to the Estonian consulate, where Estonian President Toomas Hendrik was expected to phone them with congratulations. Estonia has a population of 1.5 million people, none of whom are a household name in the sporting world.

The Luiks and Hahners are among at least 10 sets of children of multiple births who are competing in these Games: There are Thai twins and Ukrainian ones in tennis, Brazilian rugby twin brothers, Brazilian water-polo twin sisters, a pair of Slovak twins in the men's slalom canoe, Brazilian twin brothers in dressage, and sets of twin sisters from both Austria and Brazil in synchronized swimming, where one suspects they may have an advantage in the synchronicity part.

Joe Baker, a sports scientist at York University, said marathon-running triplets offer great fodder for research into what produces an Olympic athlete, research that he says has moved well beyond nature versus nurture.

"The overwhelming conclusion of the last 20 years is that you can't divide it, it's not a case of, 'This is your environment,' and, 'This is your genes,'" he said in a telephone interview. "With twins and triplets, we don't know whether it's these great genetics or the fact that they have live-in training partners, someone always there to push them, supportive parents who don't have to divide their resources – you can easily make the argument from the environment standpoint or the genetic."

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Genes are like light switches, he said, and only get turned on in a certain environment; at a conservative estimate, more than 10,000 genes are involved in determining the physiological characteristics that make someone a great marathon runner. "What research is wrestling with is, 'Do you have to be within a certain small fraction of a per cent in terms of genetics or can you have 75 per cent of the genes and still make it to the expert level?'"

The Hahner twins of Germany said they hadn't planned on running the marathon together. "It just worked out," Lisa Hahner said, sweaty and jubilant at the finish line with her sister by her side. They planned to stay together at the beginning, she said, but after just a kilometre, she felt that her sister, Anna, was setting a faster pace than she could run that day.

"Then after 19 kilometres, we met again because Anna jumped out for a toilet stop, and then we ran three kilometres together, then she said 'Oh, Lisa, now you go,' and I went. But she never really fell behind, just a few metres, and in the end I felt suddenly she was next to me. And I thought, 'Hey, then let's run together the last 200 metres!' It was really amazing to run next to your twin sister."

The Luiks were never medal contenders in Rio, with personal best times that were 17 minutes slower than the Olympic record of 2 hours 23 minutes 7 seconds set in London in 2012. But they had hopes to raise their profile, boosting sponsorship opportunities and perhaps their business selling their artwork.

The sisters, 30, were steered by their parents into dance when they were active youngsters, and performed and taught dance after college. They only took up distance running at the age of 24; within a year, they had divided national titles in the 10,000 metres, marathon and half-marathon between them. They now train part of the year at high altitude in Kenya, and they knew going into Sunday's race that the East Africans were the people to beat.

The marathon was won by Kenyan Jemima Sumgong with a time of 2:24:04; the silver medal went to Eunice Kirwa, a Kenyan running for Bahrain who finished nine seconds behind her; and the bronze by Ethiopian Mare Dibaba, 17 seconds after that. It was sunny and 27 C by the time the race ended in the Sambadrome, the long narrow stands where Rio stages the competitive Carnival parade each year.

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"It was really, really hard because of the weather, it was really hot, but we enjoyed that we made history and our triple dream came true," Lily said. "I am happy to be the best but I am happy with all the sisters because we deserve to be here. It is good, we enjoy the attention, we love it – we have always been so active and performing people."

After a lengthy appearance on Estonian television at the end of the race, the sisters were left a bit adrift – but perked up considerably when a trainer jogged up with ice cream. He brought, of course, three identical cartons.

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