Almost four years have passed since the sunny afternoon in London when Rob Heffernan charged up the Mall, overtook Russia’s Igor Yerokhin at the end of 50 gruelling kilometres, and collapsed, exhausted, to the ground.
Not many athletes launch such a desperate sprint to earn fourth – often regarded as the worst finishing position in athletics – but Heffernan knew back then the significance of that home-straight duel.
“We knew the story with the Russians,” he said yesterday, shortly after it was announced that he would be upgraded to the bronze medal after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) annulled the result of race winner Sergey Kirdyapkin.
“That’s always been the case when I finished fourth or fifth. For it to actually happen, for them to clamp down on the systematic doping, it’s definitely a positive,”
The news dropped in the form of an email from CAS, who sided with the IAAF in determining that the selective disqualification of results from the six Russian athletes – who had originally been allowed to keep their Olympic medals – was in breach of anti-doping guidelines.
At the time, Heffernan was at home with wife Marian, and he read aloud the email that delivered the news they had waited almost four years to hear: he was an Olympic medallist.
“I’m over the moon,” he said. “It’s something I’ve dreamt of all my life. I got so emotional about it, which was a surprise. It dragged on so long that I thought when it comes, no one will know about it and it’ll be as good as a Community Games medal, but this is historic.”
With the upgrade, Heffernan now becomes one of just six Irish athletes to have won an Olympic medal, and is the first Irishman to have won a European, World and Olympic medal.
Yesterday morning, though, there was precious little time to celebrate, as Heffernan travelled as planned to the Mardyke to complete his session of 6km followed by 10 repetitions of 200 metres. Before his evening session of 8km, he squeezed in a 90-minute gym workout.
“It’s a lovely feeling, but I still have to train,” he said. “At this time of year, it’s a slog for me, but I have to convince myself to get it done for the bigger day: to fire on all cylinders in Rio.”
While Heffernan was keen to look forward yesterday, he had no choice but to reflect, and the thing he remembers most about that London experience was his immediate disgust – and later, guilt – that he’d left a medal behind.
“I thought I was going to win a medal, and when I ended up fourth that moment was gone,” he said. “That was the most upsetting thing.”
Several key figures yesterday poured praise in his direction, such as OCI President Pat Hickey, who said: “Justice has been done for Rob and we are delighted he will finally get his hands on the bronze medal.”
Meanwhile the President of Athletics Ireland, Ciarán Ó Catháin, heralded Heffernan as an all-time great of the sport here. “This puts him up there with one of Ireland’s most successful athletes,” he said.
At 38, there seems little doubt the odds will be stacked against Heffernan repeating the medal feat this summer, particularly if Russia’s race walkers are cleared to compete.
While all Russian athletes are currently suspended from international competition, the IAAF has given them until May before deciding if sufficient changes have been made in their anti-doping system to enable their return, something that doesn’t sit well with Heffernan.
“It’s a disgrace,” he says. “I’ve no bitter feeling to the athletes who’ve been done for doping because it was systematic, and I know they’ve come out saying it’s not fair on the clean athletes in Russia, but it’s also not fair on the clean athletes who suffered at the hands of systematic doping by their regime.
“There needs to be a very strong anti-doping system the whole world trusts before their athletes come back, but at the moment that’s not there.
With his doping ban now over, Kirdyapkin returned to competition last month in Russia, but Heffernan is adamant he should not be welcomed back without a full admission of guilt.
“There’s no remorse, no apology,” says Heffernan. “They’re laughing at us. They think it’s just propaganda against them. If they put their hands up and apologise, accept they’re wrong, then we can take steps forward, but while they’re saying their innocent, no, don’t let them back.”
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