The pace was hot and the sun was getting hotter but Robert Heffernan from Togher in Cork was going very well yesterday morning until "the Russian" materialised alongside him in the leading pack.
They were some 12 kilometres into the Olympic 20km walk final when Valeriy Borchin joined the front group. Heffernan had been up at the front from the start but now, said George Hamilton in commentary for RTE, "you'd be concerned about the ominous presence of the Russian."
How right he was -- Borchin went on to win it. He was "ominous" in more ways than one: it turns out that Borchin is a drugs cheat who had reportedly tested positive for EPO just before the Beijing Games but ended up taking gold anyway.
Still, another eight kilometres remained at that point and Heffernan was looking comfortable among the contenders as they hammered out the hard yards. The only interruption to his steady rhythm came at the water stations where he would swipe a bottle from the table and douse his head before picking up his concentration again.
A man in the crowd with a ripe Irish accent shouted words of encouragement at the small, stick-thin Irishman. "That's the boy Robert! That's the boy!" And a minute or so later Heffernan actually took the lead. But he was in serious company and pretty soon the winners of the gold and silver medals in Athens four years ago were back in front.
Heffernan spent most of the first hour tucked in nicely behind them, concealed from the judges who were watching for infringements and issuing warnings to anyone caught 'lifting'. Race walkers are supposed to have one foot in contact with the ground at all times but the slow-motion replays seemed to indicate that just about everyone was breaking this basic rule. The race became something of a free-for-all as technical discipline crumbled under the pace of the leaders and the pressure of the occasion. Only two from the field of 51 were disqualified.
Borchin also received a warning late in the race and by now he seemed to be running more than walking. In fact, he was flying and with 18kms gone had burned off the remaining challengers for gold. He came home in 79 minutes; Heffernan finished in eighth place some 95 seconds behind the winner. With 43 athletes behind him in an Olympic final, it was a world-class performance.
The athlete we sympathised with was the one who finished second: Jefferson Perez, at 34, was 13 years older than Borchin and competing in his fourth Olympics.
Perez won gold at the Atlanta Games in 1996; he came fourth in Sydney and fourth again in Athens. A national hero in his native Ecuador, he was given the title there of sportsman of the 20th century. We can only assume that his country, on the other side of the world, came to a standstill as they gathered around their television sets to watch him go for glory one more time. They would have seen their ageing champion hanging onto Borchin in a sport that is easy to ridicule but brutally tough to endure. He lasted longer than anyone else in the scattered field and had the silver medal wrapped up long before he entered the Bird's Nest stadium for the final stretch of the race.
But Borchin's gold has made a mockery of the event, and of every clean athlete who took the line in Beijing yesterday morning. Only ten days ago, the Russian athletic authorities admitted that Borchin was one of a clutch of athletes who had tested positive for EPO, from samples taken in an out-of-competition test last April.
It was reported that he had been dropped from their Olympic team. How he ended up competing at the Games is still not clear. Borchin had already received a one-year ban in 2005 for taking the stimulant ephedrine. He was just 18.
The outbreak of hostilities in Georgia last week has prompted fears of a new Cold War. The apparent systematic doping of Russian athletes is another throwback to the Cold War era. Seven female athletes were suspended just before Beijing. A male cyclist was also dropped from the team because of a positive test.
And it could have been much worse for Perez and the rest of the race walkers if Vladimir Kanaikin hadn't been one of the athletes caught with EPO in his bloodstream just before the Games.
Kanaikin smashed the world record for the 20km walk in 2007. His record in turn was broken by another Russian, Sergey Morozov, earlier this year. Morozov was favourite for the gold medal won by Borchin. But he withdrew in mysterious circumstances from the Games last week. No-one offered an explanation. "He has not come here," said an official from the Russian athletics team. "We waited for him but he did not come to Beijing."
As the Marion Jones saga proved conclusively, a cheating athlete is a compulsive liar. Confronted by the evidence and faced by a world of suspicion, they will look you in the eye and swear that they are clean. They are deeply dysfunctional people, immersed in a moral universe where cheating is validated by their peers and vindicated by the medals around their necks.
Valeriy Borchin, you can be sure, celebrated his medal without a shred of guilt, among peers who wouldn't even question how he did it. Physically they are supremely healthy human beings; morally they are sick to the core.