Thursday 14 December 2017

Irish Olympic medal hope Robert Heffernan gets coaching advice from a drug cheat

Rob Heffernan, who will
compete for Ireland in the
20km and 50km walk
events at the London 2012
Rob Heffernan, who will compete for Ireland in the 20km and 50km walk events at the London 2012 Olympics
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

AN OLYMPIC medal hopeful last night admitted that he has been receiving coaching advice for the London Games from a Spanish drug cheat.

Irish race walker Robert Heffernan (34) from Togher in Co Cork, is one of Ireland's best hopes of a medal.

His mentor Francisco 'Paco' Fernandez is currently serving a ban for possession of the banned substance EPO, and will miss the London Olympics.

Fernandez, who has been at the centre of a doping scandal in Spain, claims he has supervised the training of Heffernan for the past two years.

In the past few days Fernandez issued a press release to Spanish media about a training camp for Irish Olympic walkers in his home town of Guadix in Granada, in southern Spain.

A group of walkers, including Robert Heffernan, Olive Loughnane and Brendan Boyce, trained there during June and the early days of July.

The camp was funded by the taxpayer through the Irish Sports Council.

Fernandez had no involvement with the Irish pre-Olympic camp, which was managed by Athletics Ireland coach Liam O'Reilly.

However, the Spaniard -- who was banned after performance-enhancing drugs were found in his home -- boasts in his press release he has been overseeing the training of Heffernan for the past two years.

There is no suggestion that any of the other walkers has had any involvement with the Spanish coach.

Heffernan was unapologetic about his continued association with Fernandez when he talked to the Irish Independent.

"His doping ban is none of my business,'' he said.

"If he is around he is willing to offer advice, and I don't see a problem with it.

"He is always willing to give a hand, but I don't work with him in an official capacity. He has eight or 10 medals. So it's a no-brainer.''

The Corkman has not breached any rules in taking help from a banned athlete, and he told the Irish Independent he did not pay Fernandez for his help.

But the involvement of a banned athlete in coaching a competitor, even in an unofficial capacity, has caused concern in Irish athletics.

One former Athletics Ireland coach told the Irish Independent: "It is best practice to keep away from those who have been known to be associated with drugs. We need to give them the message that they are not wanted in sport."

Heffernan is classified as one of Ireland's four "podium athletes'' which means he is thought to have a strong chance of a medal.

Liam O'Reilly, who is Heffernan's Irish coach and ran the camp, seemed unaware Fernandez had any involvement in coaching Heffernan when contacted by the Irish Independent.

O'Reilly acknowledged that he and Heffernan met the banned athlete socially during their stay in Spain, but said that he had no role in coaching.

But Heffernan's own version of events contradicted this.

A spokesman for Athletics Ireland later clarified matters and said Fernandez had not provided any advice to any of the athletes -- apart from Heffernan.

Fernandez and Heffernan had been friends and training partners before the Spaniard became embroiled in a doping scandal three years ago.

Kevin Ankrom, the High Performance Director of Athletics Ireland, told the Irish Independent last night: "I have no knowledge of this man overseeing the training of any of the Irish athletes."

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