Rob Heffernan battles to fifth place in Beijing 50km walk

Cork athlete fails to defend World Championship title as Matej Tóth takes the gold

He vowed not to surrender his World Championship title without a fight and so it proved, Rob Heffernan displaying typical courage and determination before eventually finishing fifth in the 50km walk in Beijing.

On the day there was no denying Matej Tóth from Slovakia, who dominated from the start win the gold medal. But in the most gruelling of athletic events, Heffernan kept himself in a medal position for as long as possible, before losing ground entering the last 5km.

It was always going to take something special to repeat the gold medal that Heffernan won in Moscow two years ago. At 37, the Cork athlete may be a little past his prime, yet he kept himself at the front of the chasing group until around 40km, at which point the Australian Jared Tallent made the break that won him silver.

That left Heffernan fighting for bronze with the Japanese duo of Takayuki Tanii and Hirooki Arai, although by the time they re-entered the Bird's Nest, Tanii was clear in bronze, with Arai in fourth.


So, Tóth’s winning time was 3:40:32, a first ever gold medal for Slovakia; Tallent won silver in 3:42:17, with Tanii not far before him, in 3:42:55, winning a first medal in Beijing for Japan. Heffernan’s fifth place came in 3:44:17, a season best, and there was no denying he’d given his all, with the look of satisfaction on his face proving it. Having failed to finish last year’s European Championships in Zurich, Heffernan has certainly kept himself in the hunt for a medal at next year’s Rio Olympics.

The field of 53 walkers set off from inside Bird’s Nest, before completing some 24 circuits of 2km in the Olympic Park area. It was hot and humid, all the athletes repeatedly throwing water over their heads in an effort to stay cool.

Not that the heat appeared to bother the winner. The 32 year-old Tóth put himself in front from the start: by 10km, he was already 27 seconds of the chasing group, which included Heffernan, and by 20km, passed in 1:29:24, Tóth was a full 50 seconds clear.

At the halfway mark, passed in 1:51:17, Tóth was still out on his own, around 55 seconds clear of Heffernan, who at that stage was leading the chasing group of seven, pressing the pace hard in an effort to close down the extremely lean Slovakian.

At 30km, Tóth was still 69 seconds clear of the chasing group, although at that stage Heffernan was still leading the chase. The only problem for Heffernan at was his timing chip wasn’t working, which meant his name wasn’t appearing in the official result updates - but he was most certainly there. Not long after that, however, Tóth dashed into one of the roadside toilets, clearly in need of immediate relief - although he reappeared almost as quickly. Still, he lost about 25 seconds in the process.

Two of the chasing pack then dropped off, starting with Andrés Chocho from Ecuador, who picked up three warnings and was disqualified, and then Erick Barrondo from Guatemala, as he also received a warning.

At 35km, passed in 2:36:16, Tóth’s advantage was back to 56 seconds, with another 15km still to go. Around then, however, Heffernan picked up his second warning, and suddenly appeared under extra pressure to retain form. Still, he kept his form through to the finish, and by finishing fifth saved some of the blushes for what has otherwise been a disappointing World Championships from an Irish perspective.

Brendan Boyce, who had been maintaining a top 20 finish, was disqualified shortly before 40km. Alex Wright, the third Irish competitor, also dropped out around the 40km mark through injury.

Back in the Bird's Nest, the Irish 4x400 metre relay squad of Brian Gregan, Brian Murphy, Thomas Barr and Mark English had to settle for eighth place in their semi-final, although there was the consolation of improving the Irish record to 3:01.26, inside the 3:01.67 clocked at the European Championships in Zurich last summer. The USA won the heat in 2:58.13.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics