Thursday 8 December 2016

Heffernan's battles with a crooked world might easily have deranged an honest mind

Published 21/11/2016 | 02:30

Rob Heffernan after finally getting the Olympic medal he deserves. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Rob Heffernan after finally getting the Olympic medal he deserves. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It is a scene that runs like a gunship through the notional sanctity of clean competition, Rob Heffernan befriending two young Russian walkers at the 2014 European Athletics Championships in Zurich.

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They speak no English, yet - through an interpreter - come seeking the Irishman's company.

To begin with, their interest confuses him. One has just won a medal in a race that he, himself abandoned, yet they want his autograph and, maybe, a singlet or tracksuit top. And their questions are unrelenting.

What's the story with that nasal strip he wears? Is there anything special about those sunglasses? Any secrets to his training regime?

Eventually it dawns on Heffernan that they're fishing for tiny swindles. He's the reigning 50km world champion walker and, well, every champion's story must be written with some kind of illusionist's sleight of hand. Right? The questions aren't designed to set any traps here. They're simply to self-educate.

To the Russians, Heffernan's is a case-study they feel compelled to explore. What trick has he mastered in the business of re-writing DNA?

Their openness disarms him. They talk of a brutal 260km-a-week mountain schedule under the unbending tutelage of their coach, Viktor Chegin, who has come with them to Zurich despite having just been banned for doping offences.

Yes, Chegin (who was banned again this year), the mastermind of Russia's state-of-the-art race-walking centre in Saransk, that crooked factory out of which so many of Heffernan's tormentors materialised across the years.

As the young Russians open their hearts to him, Heffernan's over-riding feeling towards them is sympathy. The schedule they follow and the rules they adhere to are, essentially, compulsory. Listening, he concludes that they are "simply pawns in the Russian system".

They chat for a long time, Heffernan eventually sufficiently emboldened to ask them why they dope?

A Russian doctor who is on the edge of the conversation immediately interrupts, insisting: "No, no, no. This is all propaganda!'" recalls Heffernan in his autobiography, 'Walking Tall'.

And the walkers obediently echo that contention, arguing "convincingly" that they always race clean. The following summer, both of them - Mikhail Ryzhov and Ivan Noskov - will be banned for doping.

You cannot really read Heffernan's story without marveling at how he hasn't been diminished by a sport so acrid with deceit.

Two of the major championship medals now in his possession came on the back of retrospective bans for Russian athletes who had finished in front of him. One, a European Championship silver, arrived in the post four years after the race. On it, they had mis-spelt his name.

Right through the book, Heffernan charts a story of the debilitating toll that dirty competition takes on the clean athlete.

Much of his career has been spent chasing cheats' shadows and struggling to reconcile the irrational sacrifices required to remain a full-time athlete with the almost calculated indifference of so many primary opponents to any concept of integrity.

Recalls

He recalls lying on a bed at an '07 training camp in Morocco and speculating how much easier, materially, his life would be if he was registering the kind of times that the use of EPO would almost certainly facilitate.

"I'd be loaded," he speculates. "I'd be getting start money, prize money. I'd be a star."

So why not sin?

Heffernan mentions "the obvious ill effects and your life being ruined if you were caught..."

Yet, others had no such scruples. He talks of Leamington Spa and a European Cup race in '07 and the Russian, Igor Yerokhin, breaking 40 seconds for the last 200m of a 20km race.

"I knew," writes Heffernan, "it was impossible to do that naturally."

One year later, Yerokhin was banned for EPO use and, subsequently, given a lifetime ban in 2013.

Heffernan admits he had "no motivation" to race for a time after that and there would be little respite at the Beijing Olympics when finishing eighth behind a Russian gold medallist, Valeriy Borchin, who'd failed an EPO test that April. To break the field, Borchin effectively walked a six-minute mile.

"I knew the Russians were on the gear, but it was something else to actually witness the results of that up close and personal," writes Heffernan.

That sentiment echoes through every chapter.

At those 2010 Europeans in Barcelona, for which he would eventually be deemed a bronze medal winner, the cheat was a 19-year-old Russian, Stanislav Emelyanov.

Two years later, at the London Olympics, it would be Russia's Sergey Kirdyapkin. At the 2014 Millrose Games? Sweden's Andreas Gustaffson.

Now, here's the thing.

Borchin (currently serving an eight-year ban) is still deemed by authorities to be the rightful holder of that Beijing Olympic gold as well as a European silver won two years earlier. Emelyanov still holds an impressive assortment of major youth and junior titles. Kirdyapkin retains the title of '05 world champion.

The appetite for selective periods of disqualification means that guilt is a finely layered concept in the world of sport.

On Newstalk last week, US swimmer Allison Wagner spoke of the corrosive impact her defeat to Michelle Smith at the '96 Olympics had on her adult life.

Of course, Smith's achievements in Atlanta still stand, technically, as authentic. It would be more than two years after those Games before her tampered urine sample was found to contain androstenedione - a metabolic precursor of testosterone.

Wagner revealed that she knew nothing of Smith until the Atlanta Games were beginning, believing that her only serious opponent for gold in the 400m individual medley would be the reigning champion, Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi.

Finishing second behind Smith cost her endorsements and a college scholarship, plunging Wagner into some kind of personal crisis.

Her schedule had been defined so utterly by her ability in the swimming pool, everyone around her presumed it would arc naturally towards the life of an Olympic champion. As she climbed out of the Atlanta pool that day in '96, Egerszegi reputedly told her, "Congrats, you're the real winner of this race!"

Wagner said this week that she could not dedicate herself to anything for roughly 15 years after Atlanta and suffered from an eating disorder.

"I was just so unhappy and so distraught about being betrayed on so many levels," she told Ger Gilroy. "I lost my faith that hard work really paid off.

Destroyed

"It destroyed me and I let it destroy me for a long time. It was an extraordinary price to pay, completely unfair. And this is something that people don't think about when they think about athletes who dope."

It was impossible to listen to Wagner's words and not wonder how Rob Heffernan's life might have turned out without the remarkable emotional and practical support of his wife, Marian. Because he has spent most of his athletic career living on a pittance whilst trying to break the stranglehold of athletes running on (often state-sponsored) jet fuel.

His is a story that might easily have deranged an honest mind.

And it makes you wonder how much less demoralising the clean athlete's world would be in an environment fostering zero-tolerance of drugs cheats; one in which proof of doping at any point in a career was deemed to formally write every last one of that athlete's achievements out of the record books?

Imagine if those drawn to the dark side had that gun put to their heads?

After all, if you cheated today, why should anyone believe that that impulse was beneath you yesterday?

Newstalk invited Smith to participate in last week's programme but, as was her right, she chose not to. Her decision was communicated to the station in formal correspondence, concluding pointedly with "Regards, Michelle, Triple Olympic Champion 1996."

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