AthleticsTipping Point

Olympic race walking occupies an unlit corner of that vast sporting stage

Brendan Boyce is a veteran of several Games, but his quiet determination and enthusiasm remain undimmed

Ireland’s Brendan Boyce is not different from his rivals, mind and body start in harmony and end up in conflict. Photograph: Morgan Treacy

For many years an Olympian has walked past my window. It was usually in winter, away from competition and training camps, though you could never tell from his forthright stride how near it was to the next ringed date in his racing calendar. In all weathers, Brendan Boyce wore shorts and an inscrutable expression that must have masked a becalmed mind.

Boyce lives a couple of miles away, on a country road between Midleton and Fota Island. As he passed, I often wondered how much road was ahead of him. Boyce’s strongest event was the 50km walk, a gruelling test of mind and body, but he would never attempt that distance in one training piece. A couple of times a year he would subject himself to 40km at close to racing pace, but the furthermost threshold of his endurance was saved for competition.

If I hadn’t seen him for months, though, I wouldn’t have wondered where he was. Ireland will send its biggest team to the Olympics next month, maybe as many as 130 athletes, but how many of them cross our minds from one week to the next? Between one Olympics and the next?

Boyce committed his young life to this relentless, grinding path. It is 13 years since he went to an event in Germany, chasing a qualifying time for the London Games in 2012

Rowing and boxing have been bountiful sources of Olympic medals for us but track and field is still the most glamorous of all Olympic pursuits. Race walking occupies an unlit corner of that vast stage. The race walking events at the Olympics don’t start or finish in the stadium. At the last Games, they didn’t even take place in Tokyo. It has no place in the mainstream.

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Boyce committed his young life to this relentless, grinding path. It is 13 years since he went to an event in Germany, chasing a qualifying time for the London Games in 2012.

By then, it had been four years since he moved to the United Kingdom in search of a coach and training partners, and even though he was just 24 years old he felt he had reached a tipping point. He had just graduated from college and without telling anyone, he had decided that it was make or break. The race in Germany was just his second attempt at 50km and he nailed it.

Boyce turned up at the Olympics without ever having competed at a World or European Championships. He was wide-eyed and curious and he inhaled the experience without filters. At the opening ceremony, the energy in the stadium knocked him sideways and he was so exhausted a day later that he couldn’t complete a routine 8km training spin.

Of all the track and field events, the 50km walk was the most tortuous. When Boyce finished sixth at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the desert heat was so fierce that the race did not start until 11.30pm

After that, he became hardened to the road. To succeed at his game, there was no other choice. In a heavy loading block, Boyce would cover 180km in a week, on top of his gym work, all the time planning his body and steeling his mind.

For elite race walkers, mind and body start in harmony and end up in conflict. In a 50km race, you must reach 30km believing that your body is in good shape. If that feeling was intact after 35km Boyce reckoned he could cope with the pain that was bound to follow.

Of all the track and field events, the 50km walk was the most tortuous. When Boyce finished sixth at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the desert heat was so fierce that the race did not start until 11.30pm. The winning time was an excruciating four hours and four minutes. Boyce finished 3½ minutes later, moonwalking across the line in playful celebration. “The tougher the race,” he said, “the better for me.”

In search of a kinder climate, the 50km walk at the Tokyo Games was staged in Sapporo, 800km north of the host city. As it turned out, there was no relief. The race started at 5.30am in punishing 26-degree heat and relative humidity of 79 per cent; it was 35 degrees when they finished, two degrees warmer than Tokyo.

Before those Games, Boyce represented Ireland’s best chance of a medal in athletics. Did you pay much attention then?

Boyce had targeted a top-eight finish and came 10th, nine places better than Rio and 16 better than London. Racewalkers tend to peak in their mid-30s and Tokyo had been on his mind for a long time. Ireland sent 26 track and field athletes to the last Olympics and the mixed relay team were the only others to finish in the top 10.

Before those Games, Boyce represented Ireland’s best chance of a medal in athletics. Did you pay much attention then? Had you any idea what he had done to put himself in that position?

That is not how it works. Most Olympians live lives of quiet devotion. The big beast sports dominate the news cycles and the audience traffic and the social media screeching. And then for about 2½ weeks every four years, the Olympians grapple for our hassled attention. Who are they? Strangers, mostly.

Boyce was the first Irish athlete, in any discipline, to qualify for Tokyo. This time it was always going to be trickier. It was announced before the last Games that the 50km walk was being dropped from the Olympics. It was the only event on the Olympic programme that had no approximate equivalent for women which put it at odds with the International Olympic Committee’s updated policies on gender equality.

Every time he passed my window I wondered and marvelled how he put one foot in front of the other on such a long and lonely road

It was replaced with a marathon mixed relay event. Boyce teamed up with Kate Veale and last December they were ranked seventh in the world. There were 17 spots up for grabs at the big Olympic qualifying event in Turkey, two months ago, but after just 8kms Boyce’s race ended with an injury.

At first, it looked like they wouldn’t get another opportunity but the injury healed and on Saturday morning, in Morton Stadium, they had one last chance. To qualify for the Games they needed to win the race in under three hours and eight minutes; they finished sixth, five minutes outside the time.

Boyce will be 38 in October. He’s married now and the father of young twins. This could be it.

Every time he passed my window I wondered and marvelled how he put one foot in front of the other on such a long and lonely road. Sport is full of stuff that makes our eyes glaze over. I’m glad I saw that.