On Athletics: Rob Heffernan can celebrate overdue medal

Conclusion of Russian doping scandal should see Olympic 50km walker get just deserts

Ireland’s Rob Heffernan finished fourth in the 50km walk at the London 2012 Olympic but is now in line to get the bronze medal. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.

Ireland’s Rob Heffernan finished fourth in the 50km walk at the London 2012 Olympic but is now in line to get the bronze medal. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.

 

How would you celebrate winning an Olympic medal? Would you throw your arms in the air, start screaming hysterically at the sky, close your eyes in the sheer and utter disbelief of it all? Or would you smile gently to yourself, bury the satisfaction somewhere deep down inside, then get straight get back to the business of winning another Olympic medal? 

These are strange days in the increasingly murky world of athletics, so who knows exactly how Rob Heffernan should celebrate winning an Olympic medal. What is certain is that next Friday the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) in Lausanne will hear the final case against the “selective disqualification of results” applied to the several doping offences by Russian race walkers.

Moral stance

Their verdict will be delivered within a matter of days, possibly awarding Heffernan an Olympic bronze medal just in time for his 38th birthday, next Sunday. 

The cases – six in all – have been on the Cas books since last March, when the IAAF, taking a somewhat uncharacteristically high moral stance, appealed the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) decision to issue these selective disqualification periods to their five top race walkers, including Sergey Kirdyapkin, the man who won Olympic gold in the 50km walk in London 2012, where Heffernan finished fourth.

In January of 2015, confirming the already considerable suspicions, Kirdyapkin was finally declared guilty of an anti-doping violation, under the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) programme: not long after that London Olympic gold medallist in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase, Yuliya Zaripova, was also busted under the ABP programme. 

Only Rusada – and before the lid was lifted on the various charades of that operation – decided to pick and choose exactly how those athletes would be banned: Kirdyapkin’s ban, bizarrely, only included periods from July 2009 to June 2012, and from October 2012 onwards – effectively suggesting he was somehow clean during the London Olympics. Likewise with Zaripova: she would be stripped of her Olympic title, but could hold on to the World Championship title she won the year before. 

Kirdyapkin’s case (and the four other walkers) was heard in December, and CAS will conclude with the Zaripova case next Friday, and then “will simultaneously issue an arbitral award for each case”. The only expectation here is that CAS will uphold the IAAF appeal, strip Kirdyapkin of his Olympic title, so that Heffernan will be automatically upgraded to the bronze medal position.

That’s not saying there isn’t some room for the unexpected. No one, it seems, expected the sudden death of the executive director of Rusada, Nikita Kamayev, last Sunday, aged 52. Kamayev, with no known previous illness, died at home of a heart attack, two months after resigning from his Rusada position in the aftermath of World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) independent commission report, last November, which revealed near systematic doping in Russian athletics. 

Kamayev, according to reports later in the week, was writing a book about the dirty world of Rusada, even though his friends had advised him otherwise. Of course his sudden death may be just entirely coincidental, as indeed the sudden death earlier this month of Vyacheslav Sinev, the former general director of Rusada.

What is not clear is if in the case of Kirdyapkin et al they considered the details of that Wada report, part two of which – released last month – presented evidence that then IAAF president Lamine Diack told a lawyer he’d need to cut a deal with Vladimir Putin to help resolve some of those Russian doping offences. 

The Wada report also presented evidence that Kirdyapkin was originally included on the list of Russia’s suspended athletes in November 2011, which meant he shouldn’t have been anywhere near London in the first place: the report also identified “that there was an excessive time delay” in the notification of Kirdyapkin’s abnormal blood values, again clearly designed to ensure he still competed in London. 

Mixed emotions

Either way, if Cas has any business in justice then that Olympic title will be stripped from Kirdyapkin. In fact according to reports on the Russian news site Allsport, Kirdyapkin is himself prepared to hand back his Olympic gold, if it means he’s allowed a “clean” start again and can compete in Rio this summer.  

For Heffernan, meanwhile, the now virtually certain prospect of being awarded that bronze medal within the next week brings wonderfully mixed emotions: yes, he can’t wait for some hysterical celebrations, only he can’t let those celebrations get in the way of his preparations for Rio.

No Irish athlete has competed in five summer Olympics, and with his Rio qualification already secured, Heffernan is putting every last step into what should be his chance to win a second Olympic medal, and this time preferably in the race itself. 

It may feel strange celebrating only our 29th Irish medal in Olympic history in late February but that shouldn’t take away from the sheer and utter disbelief of it all.

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