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‘I guess this is the end of the road for 50km so it’s a new life for me after this’ – Brendan Boyce finishes 10th in third Olympics

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Brendan Boyce deals with the heat after the 50km race walk. Photo: Sportsfile

Brendan Boyce deals with the heat after the 50km race walk. Photo: Sportsfile

Brendan Boyce deals with the heat after the 50km race walk. Photo: Sportsfile

At the end of 50 ferociously tough kilometres, he had reason to smile as he churned through the last of them. At what is likely his event’s last stand on the Olympic stage, Brendan Boyce battled through nauseating fatigue and viciously oppressive heat in Sapporo today to finish a truly terrific 10th in the 50km race walk.

Three hours, 53 minutes and 40 seconds – his time brought him home just a few minutes outside the medals, with Poland’s Dawid Tomala rewarded for his mid-race bravery with gold in 3:50:08, Germany’s Jonathan Hilbert next in with 3:50:44, and Canada’s Evan Dunfee surging to bronze over the final kilometre in 3:50:59.

Boyce, meanwhile, had spent the final few kilometres in a private war with those around him, the Donegal 34-year-old surging back and forth against Colombia’s Jose Montana with a level of application and willpower that it could just as easily have been confused with a fight for gold.

But that’s Boyce – always has been, always will be, for as long as he chooses to pursue this as his profession. That much remains in doubt right now given the International Olympic Committee will eliminate this event for the 2024 Games in Paris, its desire to balance the athletics programme between genders seeing it replaced by a team event at a shorter distance – seen as more accommodating to a TV audience in the age of supposedly shortening attention spans.

And that in itself is a great shame, for no event in athletics produces such unscripted drama, such colossal competitive carnage, as the 50km race walk – the longest and most arduous of the athletics programme, an arena that both attracts and fosters the quirkiest of personalities, men with a capacity to suffer like few others.

That’s what 57 of them signed up for when they went to the line in Sapporo at 5:30am this morning, the host city chosen due to its location, 831km north of Tokyo, the IOC hopeful that would allow cooler conditions. In truth, it didn’t work out, temperatures soaring into the high 20s as the race progressed and the sun ascended over the athletes, the maximum temperatures in the coming days as the marathons play out expected to be just a single degree cooler than in Japan’s capital.

Boyce put himself in among the top contenders from the outset, walking like the athlete he is, who belongs in the top 10, something that was reinforced at the 2019 World Championships where he sliced through the field to finish sixth. Here, he passed 10km in a relatively pedestrian 48:23 before things picked up with a 46:47 second 10km – think about many that alone would out-perform in your local 10km road race (walking) and you get an idea of the level required here.

“It was kind of the way I planned – to go out steady and push through the race,” said Boyce. “It just so happened that everyone else had the same plan, so I was able to stick in the mix until about 38km and then just had to hold on then, and pick off any positions I could get a hold of.”

At halfway, which Boyce passed in 1:58:20, he was towards the back of a large pack of 22 athletes, and it was shortly before the 30km mark that the first truly important move of the race arrived, with Tomala surging off the front, most of the big contenders allowing him to escape, figuring it was too big a risk to go so hard, so soon. The Pole built up a three-minute lead heading into the last 10km, and sure enough the wheels did fall off towards the end, but not enough for him to surrender gold.

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Boyce, meanwhile, did what he always does: he kept fighting. At 35km, he was a few seconds in arrears of the main pack in 14th, and by 40km he had clawed his way up to 11th. With 5km to walk, he had dropped to 12th, but as two of the men in front of him capitulated in the conditions – or maybe just from the sheer insanity of walking 50km at the pace they had – Boyce produced a strong finish to move up to 10th.

“I feel like I gave everything,” he said. “I worked for the top 10 so I’m happy – happy to get that kind of a result in these conditions and back up what I did two years ago in Doha.”

As he powered up the home straight a wide smile broke out on his face. Boyce had given up a lot to achieve a finish like this, time spent away from his wife and child while on training camps abroad, the career he might otherwise be pursuing put on hold to chase the Olympic dream for a third time across a nine-year period. He finished 26th at the London Games in 2012, 19th at the Rio Games in 2016.

“I guess this is the end of the road for 50km so it’s a new life for me after this,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes next year.”

His 10th place here made him Ireland’s second-best individual performer of the Games, behind Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles (ninth), and was one with which his longtime coach, Rob Heffernan, would have been most proud.

Further back, there was a career-best showing too by Alex Wright, the Leevale athlete slicing through the field over the latter half to finish 29th, the only pity for the 30-year-old being that this event will no longer be around for him to target, given it seems it’s where his best chance lies of a top finish in the future.

Both Boyce and Wright had done themselves proud, maximising all that they had on the biggest stage there is. No one could ask any more than that.


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