Not many athletes get to finish their fifth Olympics in sixth place, with the promise of a bronze medal to come, and for Rob Heffernan there's a strange and unusual twist in that tale entirely fitting with the madness of these past two weeks in Rio.
The Olympic medal Heffernan went after in the 50km walk down along Rio’s Pontal beach never materialised, the heat of the day and the opposition a little too much to handle: in placing sixth, Heffernan did make it four top-10 finishes from his now five Olympic attempts, a standout record for any Irish athlete, especially in such a gruelling event where so much can, and often does, go wrong.
That includes the bronze medal the Cork man is still due from the 50km walk in London 2012. He originally finished fourth, only to be upgraded earlier this year after the Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin was finally nailed for doping offences.
Heffernan had deliberately deferred any actual presentation of that medal until after Rio, as he didn’t want it to interrupt or indeed lesson his hunger for another one here.
Only now, as it turns out, that medal is still in the possession of the Olympic Council of Ireland, having been handed over to OCI president Pat Hickey for safe keeping.
Hickey, of course, is currently sitting in a Rio’s Bangu prison, for his alleged involvement in the Olympic ticket-touting scheme, and has stepped aside from his OCI duties.
“Someone said it was all he had on when he got arrested,” said Heffernan, and given all that’s unfolded in Rio in recent days, it was hard not to mix the cruel with the comic.
“But no, we believe the medal is back in Ireland. And we will have a medal ceremony, in Cork, in a month or two. And I hope everyone comes out for that, and we can celebrate it. We’ll have a good night that night, that’s all I can say.”
Heffernan may well have a little celebration after this one, too: at 38, he wasn’t the oldest man in the field, but continues to be among the best, keeping himself within reach of a medal up until around 40km, before the race took a dramatic turn.
World record holder Yohann Diniz from France, who at halfway was almost two minutes clear, began to wobble and then collapsed, twice, yet somehow managed to keep going (he ended up eighth).
With that Jared Tallent from Australia struck for gold, looking to retain his 2012 title, only to find himself reeled in again by Matej Tóth from Slovakia, who had the legs and the head to keep going until the finish, winning in 3:40:58 – a first ever athletics gold medal for his country.
Tallent held on for silver, 18 seconds back, and Hirooki Arai from Japan won the race for bronze, in 3:41:24, 14 seconds ahead of Evan Dunfee from Canada.
All four promptly collapsed onto the hot road.
About an hour later Arai was disqualified, having judged to have shouldered the Canadian in the closing stages of the race.
Dunfee was briefly awarded third (and Heffernan promoted to fifth), although Arai appealed, and later still the Japanese athlete was reinstated on the podium in third (leaving Heffernan in his original sixth place).
While there has been a lot of suspicion about the medal winners in this event in recent years, none Tóth, Tallent or Arai have ever raised any eyebrows, but rather have been overtly vocal on anti-doping, particularly about the now banned Russians.
For much of the last 10km, Heffernan was detached and walking alone back in sixth, before crossing the finish in 3:43:55.
With that he blew a quick kiss to the crowd, before exhaling loudly, ‘Huh!’, as well he might. Given it is unlikely there will be any upgrading in this race for doping offences, he was ultimately content with that sixth place.
“A small part of me might be disappointed that I didn’t win a medal, but that race can go anyway, and I have to be satisfied. I had a go.
“When Yohann [Diniz] went off the front I was thinking ‘yes, I’m going to win this’, and then my legs started cramping up and any movement at all from 36km on, I was seriously cramping, and I had to stay conservative. Because you appreciate, in that position, there could be a DNF [did not finish] ahead of you.”
Offering her encouragement from close to the finish area was his wife and coach Marian. “She knew I was cramping, could see that, and if you push it too hard, it can all come apart. I just had to consolidate. My lungs felt good, but my legs were in agony.
“Coming around the bends my calves were cramping, my groin was cramping, my arms were cramping, everything was cramping. If you come to a stop that’s it. I always want to win a medal, but it wasn’t to be.
“And I know after all the support I’ve got, how important it was for them for me to finish. It wasn’t just about me. I wasn’t going to win a medal but I still had to fight to finish. Sixth is still sixth.”
Heffernan's training partner Brendan Boyce (who he coaches) also finished inside the top 20, in 19th, clocking 3:53:59 – and he declared himself perfectly content with his placing too.
For Heffernan, this Rio appearance already leaves him the only Irish athlete to compete in five consecutive Olympics (Irish sailor David Wilkins also competed in five, though not consecutive): he's now finished third (in London), sixth (here), and also boasts an eighth place in the 20km walk in Beijing, and a ninth place in the 20km walk in London. With his 2013 World Championship gold, and 2010 European Championships bronze, he now has his complete set of championship medals – not that he considers himself done yet.
“Up to today, no, you don’t look beyond Rio. But I am now. My training went really well, the last few months. I’ll speak with Marian and I’ll speak with the kids and see if they’re happy. That’s the most important thing, that we’re happy as a family. But why not?
“People always going on about retirement. But if you’re able to be competitive, and people are getting joy out of my performances, and I’m getting joy, why not keep going? There’s a World Championship in London next year, so maybe we will be back.”
Indeed Heffernan may find some inspiration from Jesús Ángel García, who finished 20th here, aged 46, his seventh Olympic appearance a record number for a man, tying the outright record set by sprinter Merlene Ottey.
No Irish man, after all, has ever competed in more than five summer Games. Why stop now?