Sunday 4 December 2016

Olympic medal hero Heffernan savours his 'historic' day

Cathal Dennehy

Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30

Rob Heffernan celebrating with his wife Marian and children Cathal, Megan, Regan and Tara at the Mardyke yesterday (Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision)
Rob Heffernan celebrating with his wife Marian and children Cathal, Megan, Regan and Tara at the Mardyke yesterday (Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision)

Rob Heffernan was sitting at the breakfast table yesterday morning when his phone beeped, delivering news he had been waiting almost four years to hear: at the age of 38, he was finally an Olympic medallist.

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Before he opened the email from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), he called wife Marian and his children downstairs.

The family had built their existence around his Olympic ambitions, felt every ounce of pain he did when he finished fourth at the London Games in 2012; the least they deserved now was to share the moment together.

"I got so emotional about it," revealed Heffernan. "It dragged on so long that I thought when it comes, no one will know about it and it'll be as good as a Community Games medal, but this is historic. It's something I've dreamt of all my life. The significance is huge."

He's not wrong. With that email - and the later confirmation from the IAAF that Olympic 50km race walk champion Sergey Kirdyapkin of Russia would have his results annulled from the London Games - Heffernan became just the sixth Irish athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games, and the only Irish man to have won a European, World and Olympic medal.

"This should be a massive celebration for clean sport," he said. "This shows that if you do the right things, (Irish athletes) can do it."

For Heffernan, there was scant time to celebrate. Shortly after hearing the news, he took flight to the Mardyke for a long track workout, which was followed by a 90-minute gym session.

In the evening, he was back out on the roads for an 8km walk - and that's considered an easy day.

"I still have to get my training done," he said. "This time of year is a slog for me, but I have to convince myself to get it done for the bigger day, so I can fire on all cylinders in Rio. At the end of the day, it's all about Rio now."

While Heffernan was keen to look forward, his retired former team-mate Olive Loughnane could only look back yesterday.

Runner-up

The 40-year-old was at home in Coachford, Co Cork, when the news came through that she had been officially upgraded to the gold medal in the 20km race walk from the IAAF World Championships in 2009 - a race in which she finished runner-up to Russia's Olga Kaniskina.

"I knew this day would come," she said. "It's nice to have it officially confirmed and to be winning medals when you're retired."

Loughnane didn't wish to lay blame at her competitors' door, but rather at the hands of those who ran the corrupt regime which allowed doping to fester.

"To be fair, these girls were put under pressure," she said. "It wasn't like Kaniskina went on the internet and bought whatever she took. It was systematic.

"I'm from a country where that behaviour is neither expected nor tolerated, and I'm very proud of that.

"The corruption went all the way to the top of the sport, and I'm bitter about what was effectively a systematic cover-up.

"I feel that the people who were supposed to be protecting me were complicit in the cover-up, and that I have a huge issue with."

While Loughnane, who retired in 2012, no longer has to concern herself with such matters, Heffernan faces the possibility that Kirdyapkin - along with the rest of the Russian team - will return in time for the Rio Olympics.

Earlier this month the IAAF announced it was giving the Russian Athletics Federation until May to fix its doping problems or face continued suspension from the sport, but the thought of them returning in time for Rio doesn't sit well with Heffernan.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "I know they've come out saying it's not fair on the clean athletes in Russia, but it's also not fair on the clean athletes who suffered at the hands of systematic doping by their regime.

"They think it's propaganda against them. There's no remorse, no apology. They're laughing at us. If they put their hands up and apologise, accept they're wrong, then we can take steps forward, but while they're saying they're innocent, no. Don't let them back."

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