Rob Heffernan leaves Irish athletics facing new challenges
Walker was best of the Irish in London in what was his final major championships
Seb Coe: “We wouldn’t be in the business of marking our own homework at this stage.” Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Curtain calling in London, and one of the questions put to Sebastian Coe at the final session of these World Athletics Championships was what he might mark it all out of 10.
“We wouldn’t be in the business of marking our own homework at this stage,” said Coe, at his sweet diplomatic best. After 10 eventful days they certainly passed a few important tests and a championship record attendance of 701,889 is just one mark of that.
Coe also said on the eve of these championships the biggest challenge facing athletics was not doping, it was attracting a younger and wider audience, and there’s reason to believe London rose to that challenge.
Not that the doping challenge has or ever will go away. Coe didn’t dodge that question, reiterating his belief “a disproportionate of reputational damage is being done by a few number of federations” – while adding there is still a long way to go.
Justin Gatlin, he acknowledged, was eligible to be there, but he was adamant again he’d rather not see athletes with previous doping offences walking away with medals. “Medal reallocation”, he said, “was also here to stay” – again because no sport can ever consider itself entirely clean.
The big challenge now is continuing to widen the appeal of athletics into the 2019 World Championships, in Doha, Qatar – especially in the absence of a certain Usain Bolt.
“We’ve seen some of the youngest ever medal winners here,” said Coe. “How they then become publically recognised is in large part down to the work of their federations, the work we will do in the IAAF, to help create stars.
“And of course this is hard core athletics territory. We’re not always going to go into such areas, for good reason, because it takes us into new markets. We are going to have to work hard to make sure we continue that theatre atmosphere.”
For Irish athletics, the challenge has rarely looked greater. Rob Heffernan, far from the first time, was the top outright Irish finisher with his eighth place in the 50km walk at The Mall earlier on Sunday morning. More worrying is that also marks Heffernan’s exit off the major championship stage, with little sign of any Irish athlete stepping up to his lofty heights anytime soon, not just in the race walks.
Heffernan may, for purely encore purposes, add another race or two – but this will be his last appearance at global level for the only Irish athlete to compete in five consecutive Olympic Games, London bringing the realisation this is now as good as it gets – and the moment to walk away from that long already and illustrious career.
“The body has just lost that desire to be massively competitive, massively hurt,” he said, at age 39 by no means ancient by race walking standards, indeed the same age as race winner Yohann Diniz from France, who won the gold medal in 3:33:11, the second fastest 50km walk in history.
“My natural instinct is that I always want to win a medal, and when that wasn’t, it was trying to get something positive out it, so happy the way it finished up.”
Around halfway, he was sitting back in 21st place, but worked his way through to finish in 3:44.41. With his World Championship gold from 2013, upgraded Olympic bronze from 2012, plus European bronze in the 20k walk from 2010, he has reached the medal podium at every major championships.
“I always said, when I’m not challenging for medals, it’s time for me to help the new generation now, put some of my experience back in there. I’ve done enough in the sport.”
Was he worried the next generation of Irish athletes might replicate his success?
“Why not? It’s no big secret, it’s work, it’s work, it’s work. The sport is so poisonous now with talk of doping all the time that we’re forgetting the main ingredients that makes our athletes good. What made Sonia good, Marcus good, Dick Hooper good. They trained very hard, and with the scientific support we have now, we should be bringing more through.”
And now more than ever: on the track, even accounting for the unfortunate illness of Thomas Barr, Brian Gregan was the only top-20 finisher (19th overall in the 400m); Barr ended up ranked 24th in the 400m hurdles, Mark English 34th in the 800m, Ciara Mageean 34th in the 1,500m, and Síofra Cléirigh Büttner 40th in the 800m.
Alex Wright was also disqualified in the 20km walk earlier on Sunday, Brendan Boyce failed to start the 50km walk. Marks out of 10?