Heffernan 'satisfied' with sixth after battling through the pain barrier
Though there was no medal for Rob Heffernan in yesterday's 50km walk, a sixth-placed finish in the searing heat represented another magnificent achievement for the 38-year-old Togher man.
Ten minutes after he crossed the finishing line, the physical toll of race-walking over 30 miles in searing temperatures was painfully visible on his slender frame.
As the right side of his body went into spasm, forcing him to cry out in pain, Heffernan was philosophical about missing out on a medal.
"Look, sixth in the Olympics, I'm around long enough to appreciate how good that is," he said. "Tomorrow morning I'll probably be disappointed not to win a medal but that race can go any way and I'm delighted, sixth in the Olympics is sixth in the Olympics, so I have to be satisfied."
Heffernan has now claimed three top ten finishes at three Olympics: he was eighth in the 20km in Beijing; fourth - later upgraded to third - in London in the 50km; and now sixth.
This was his fifth Olympics, and no Irish athlete has matched his level of consistency.
Heffernan was briefly promoted to fifth after Japan's Hirooki Arai, who finished third, was disqualified after barging Canadian Evan Dunfee when he passed him a dramatic finale.
But Dunfee's joy at securing the bronze was short-lived. Arai successfully appealed against his disqualification and three hours later he was restored as the bronze medallist.
Australian Jared Tallent, who looked destined to win with one lap to go was caught near the end by the favourite, 2015 World champion Matej Toth from Slovenia.
The conditions were punishing, with the temperature creeping into the 30s, with just 48 of the 80 starters finishing.
Toth's time of 3:40.58 was five minutes slower than Sergey Kirdyapkin's discredited victory in London four years ago.
Heffernan's (3:43.55) was six minutes slower than in London. He acknowledged that when it came to the business end of the race he couldn't go with the leaders.
"I had to consolidate. The last 2k, it wasn't like. . . my heart and lungs were good but I was in agony, my legs were in agony. When I was coming around the bend, my calves were cramping up, my groins were cramping, my arms were cramping.
"I know many people supported me at home and how important it was for them for me to finish. So I was very aware that it wasn't just me, and that's what made me think, 'Okay, we don't have a medal but you can fight for sixth'.
Not for the first time in his career, Frenchman Yohann Diniz attempted to defy conventional wisdom and burn the opposition off in the first half of the race as he went in search of his first Olympic medal.
Inevitably his attempt failed and he was caught by the chasing pack which included Heffernan with 15km left. At that point, Heffernan believed that he could secure the gold.
"When Yohann came off the front I was like, 'f*** yes, I'm going to win this', and then my legs started cramping up," he said.
Then it was Tallent's turn to take the initiative as Heffernan was dropped by the pack. Having finished second in both Beijing and London - later upgraded to gold - it looked like he might finally cross the line first only to be caught by Toth at the death.
Heffernan's team-mate Brendan Boyce finished 19th in 3:53.59, one place ahead of 46-year-old Spaniard Jesus Garcia, who equalled Merlene Ottey's record of seven appearances in the Summer Olympics.
Alex Wright, who finished 46th in the 20km walk a week ago, dropped out after the 30km mark when he was lying 34th.