Rob Heffernan: ‘An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, no matter when it comes’
Irish walker set to be upgraded to bronze medal for London 2012
Sergey Kirdyapkin of Russia crosses the line to win gold during the Men’s 50km Walk at the London Olympic Games in August 2012. Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The dark cloud which now hangs over Russia’s participation at the Rio Olympics may not have any of the proverbial silver lining, although there will now surely be a bronze one for Irish race walker Rob Heffernan.
Of all the detailed and damning evidence presented in the Independent Commission report into doping practices in Russia, the one with immediate implications as far as Heffernan is concerned is the naming and shaming of Sergey Kirdyapkin, along with Russian race walking coach Viktor Chegin.
It was Kirdyapkin who won the gold medal in the 50km walk at the 2012 London, where Heffernan finished fourth. Earlier this year, however, Kirdyapkin was among the latest batch of race walkers to be suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) due to irregularities in their biological passports.
The problem was that Rusada only imposed a retrospective ban from the periods of July 2009 to June 2012, and from October 2012 on – effectively suggesting he was somehow clean during the London Olympics. The IAAF have since appealed this decision to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and there is plenty of evidence in the Independent Commission report to add weight to the case, and ensure Heffernan is upgraded to the bronze medal he now deserves.
According to the report, Kirdyapkin was originally included on the list of 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 when he shouldn’t have been.
The report also identifies Chegin as one of the five Russian coaches that should be banned for life, given the depth of evidence of doping at the race walking training facility in Saransk, which in fact had been named after him. The report says it has “gathered evidence of collusion, deception and violations of the (Wada) Code at this facility, with individuals involved ranging from athletes to support and training personnel up to the director”.
None of this comes as any great surprise to Heffernan, who has continually aired his concerns about the dominance of the Russian race walkers in recent years. However he also agrees with the Independent Commission report that the Russian doping is so systematic that the athletes themselves have hardly no choice but to comply.
“I don’t think they’re bad people,” he says. “I’ve always said most of them are completely oblivious to it all, and don’t even think they’re doping. I’ve spoken to a few of them, through a translator, and I think it’s always been just systematic.”
Heffernan has also been cautious about letting the prospect of this Olympic bronze medal impinge on his preparations for Rio, and what will be a record fifth summer Olympics for the Cork athlete: “An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, no matter when it comes. It’s huge. It doesn’t get any bigger. But I can’t let it become a distraction, or take any of the edge off my preparations for Rio. I just need to make sure I’m ready to park it, mentally. Even if I do have the medal already. Because I am now massively motivated again, for Rio.”
So Heffernan is now just one small step away of winning what will be the 29th Irish medal in Olympic history, albeit nearly four years late. And with a World Championship gold from 2013, and a retrospective bronze medal from the 2010 Europeans in Barcelona (that Russian gold medallist was also banned), it would neatly complete his set.
Already in line for a medal upgrade is Olive Loughnane, who originally won silver in the 20km walk at the World Championships in Berlin, where Russia’s Olga Kaniskina won gold – although her retrospective ban, also announced back in January, also included the period during those 2009 World Championships.