Rob Heffernan savours Olympic bronze medal four years on
Cork walker becomes first Irish athlete to receive Olympic medal on home soil
Olympian Rob Heffernan with his bronze medal: he received the medal at a ceremony in Cork City Hall. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Race walker Rob Heffernan has said he lived in fear of being called a drugs cheat after he received an adverse test result following surgery on his right hip.
The Cork athlete on Thursday night became the first Irish athlete to receive an Olympic medal on home soil after being belatedly awarded a bronze medal dating back to London 2012.
He came fourth in the 50km walk at the time but the Russian gold medallist Sergey Kirdyapkin was subsequently disqualified for doping and his finish was upgraded.
Heffernan said his fears over the drugs test stemmed from being diagnosed with hernias in both hips, which required surgeries in late 2014 and April 2015.
When he woke up at a London hospital after the second operation he was greeted by a delegate from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), who wanted him to do an anti-doping test.
Heffernan received an adverse result and, he said, for five weeks, he lived in fear of becoming known as a drugs cheat. The culprit in the adverse result, hydroxyethyl starch, was a minor ingredient in the intravenous paracetamol used during the operation.
He said he did not receive any support from Athletics Ireland in clearing his name, and that his wife, Marian, gave birth to their daughter Tara in the midst of the turmoil. The experience was devastating for him and his family, he said.
“This just destroyed everyone connected with me,” he said. “My kids, I felt I had nothing to offer them. I had no earning potential...I knew it had to do with the operation. There is no other explanation. The 20 tests I did that year none of them counted. My life was going to be destroyed over this.”
Heffernan was later cleared of any wrongdoing and has since tried to make Athletics Ireland put a procedure in place to ensure it will not happen to others.
He wants to make certain that the next Irish athlete to have an operation would have the doctor check every substance possible and a therapeutic use exemption form would be issued for them all.
Heffernan received his Olympic medal, his ultimate ambition growing up, at a ceremony in Cork City Hall.
‘Dream come true’
“Obviously for me it is a dream come true. Ever since I did sport all I wanted was a medal. Coming back to Ireland, we are more passionate about sport and we love sport more in this country than the whole world... It is a huge honour for me.”
Heffernan’s autobiography, Walking Tall, credits his parents, Maureen and Bobby, with teaching him discipline and the importance of working hard to survive.
Life as a high-level sportsman has meant making sacrifices, he said, including missing his sister’s wedding, his aunt’s funeral and the death of his mother in 2011 while he was in Korea for the world championships.
He began race walking on a whim at the age of fourteen after he was deemed too small for his school’s Gaelic football team.
Heffernan said his success boils down to stubbornness and dedication but that the gods also have to come together on race day.