Rob Heffernan has slammed the International Olympic Committee for delaying a decision to postpone the 2020 Games in Tokyo, branding the IOC's treatment of athletes as "scandalous".
he former world champion race walker is currently coaching four athletes who were set to compete at the Games this summer, which appear a remote possibility after long-time IOC member Dick Pound said last night that “postponement has been decided”.
“The parameters have not been determined but the Games are not going to start on July 24,” said Pound. However, the IOC has yet to rule out the Games going ahead on schedule and a statement on Sunday said it was considering a number of options. But Heffernan believes the IOC need to announce a postponement now.
“At an Olympic Games where most of the volunteers would be elderly, you’re risking lives,” he said. “You’re also risking igniting this thing again if it does die down (by July). From a health point of view, it’s scandalous. The right decision is to postpone it a minimum of three months, if not a year.”
In a poll of 4,000 athletes run by The Athletics Association, 78 per cent said the Games should be postponed with 87 per cent saying the outbreak affected their training. World Athletics president Sebastian Coe recently wrote to the IOC to say a July Olympics was “neither feasible or desirable,” while Peter Sherrard, CEO of the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI), admitted yesterday the Games are “likely to be postponed”.
In a statement, the OFI said it was gathering information from athletes about their concerns which will be forwarded to the IOC, with Team Ireland chef de mission Tricia Heberle saying: “On the premise that Tokyo 2020 will be postponed, we now need to get their input before taking next steps.”
Despite the disruption to training and racing schedules, Heffernan’s crew have continued to prepare as planned. He has four race walkers under his guidance: Irishmen Brendan Boyce and David Kenny, along with South Africa’s Wayne Snyman and Britain’s Callum Wilkinson.
But with the Japanese government involved in a game of ‘chicken’ with the IOC - both parties not wanting to face the financial burden of being the one to trigger cancellation - athletes have been left in limbo with few places to train.
“It’s ridiculous, it makes no sense,” said Heffernan, an Olympic bronze medallist in 2012. “It’s not fair on the athletes, with the virus still around, to entertain putting people’s lives at risk. Track athletes are not able to train properly and to have to peak (for July) would be very, very hard.”
Despite that his charges have been working as hard as ever, with Boyce (sixth in the 50km race walk at last year’s World Championships) logging more than 100 miles a week in training. The World Race Walking Team Championships in May have been cancelled and in its place Heffernan plans to pace Boyce through 50km that weekend, running two metres in front of him and covering the marathon distance (42.2km) in under 3:10.
“Regardless of the Olympics being called off, normality will have to resume eventually and everyone will be looking for a race in September, October, November, so we’ll aim for a race then,” said Heffernan, who is urging athletes to find positives in these trying times.
“If the Olympics are postponed, we still need to improve on technique, strength, endurance, speed. We have to put the training blocks in so we don’t de-train. When I looked at my last few years there weren’t any areas I could get better, but with Dave and Brendan there are.”
In Kenny, Heffernan believes he has found the next great Irish race walker, and the 21-year-old Kerryman is one who would undoubtedly benefit from another year’s training before the Olympics.
“He’s the best young athlete I’ve seen at that age, really smart, responds to everything he’s taught and he has a really big future,” said Heffernan. “Hopefully things will be back up and running by the summer, but if not it’s going to catapult you on and you’ll be stronger next year.”