Rob Heffernan aims for World Championships: I'm still one of the best in the world

Rob Heffernan aims for World Championships: I'm still one of the best in the world
Robert Heffernan, left, and Brendan Boyce after the Men's 50km Walk Final. Pic: Sportsfile

Update 9pm: Rob Heffernan has been restored to sixth place after an eventful Men's 50K walk in Rio.

The London bronze medal winner was provisionally promoted to fifth place, but he has now reverted to the position in which he crossed the finish line.

That’s after Japan's Hirooki Arai successfully appealed against his disqualification from third place.

Rob Heffernan took a fifth-place finish in his fifth Olympics, and immediately set his sights on next year’s World Championships in London, refusing to rule out another Olympic bid in Tokyo in four years’ time, writes Will Downing in Rio.

Heffernan crossed the line in sixth place, but was upgraded to fifth when bronze-medallist Hiroochi Arai was disqualified after the race by the judges.

The man of the race though didn’t feature in the top six at all – reigning European champion and world record holder Yohann Diniz.

The Frenchman set off at a blistering pace, burning off the rest of the field early on, opening up a 28-second lead after 5km, that kept on growing km by km.

Diniz had opened up a mammoth 90-second lead by 30km, when suddenly he pulled over by the side of the road and stopped walking, looking like he was pulling out.

Behind Diniz, a nine-man chasing group featuring Heffernan, world champion Matej Toth (Slovakia) and Olympic champion Jared Tallent (Australia) was beginning to splinter, with Pan-Am Games 20k champion Evan Dunfee (Canada) pushing the initiative.

Jared Tallent of Australia is carried from the course on a wheelchair after winning his silver medal. Pic: Sportsfile
Jared Tallent of Australia is carried from the course on a wheelchair after winning his silver medal. Pic: Sportsfile

As soon as Dunfee came upon the stricken Diniz, the Frenchman got filled with new life, and set out on foot again.

They stayed together for a couple of kilometres before Diniz fell back into the chasing group, and was among the thick of them when he suddenly and alarmingly collapsed.

However, within a minute, he was back up again and chasing a high finish, though his medal prospects had then gone.

Heffernan had fallen off the back of this chasing group by this stage, with 15km to go, but kept them firmly within his sights.

Dunfee too began to falter, losing the lead to upgraded 2012 champion Tallent by the 40k mark.

He was joined by Arai in opening up a four-second lead over Toth, Dunfee and Yu Wei of China.

Hirooki Arai of Japan lies in the finish area after the Men's 50km Walk Final. Pic: Sportsfile
Hirooki Arai of Japan lies in the finish area after the Men's 50km Walk Final. Pic: Sportsfile

Yu fell off the back of the group and was momentarily overtaken for fifth by Heffernan, but after 30 seconds in fifth place, the Corkman was overtaken by Yu on his inside and great speed.

Tallent’s lead over Toth has risen to half a minute by 44km, but was cut to 15 seconds with 4km to go.

The remaining gap was reeled in across the next two kilometres, with the Slovakian overtaking the Aussie champion with exactly 2k to go.

From there, Toth would not be denied, adding the Olympic crown to his world title with a time of 3 hours, 40 minutes, 58 seconds.

Tallent finished with silver 18 seconds down, with Arai third eight seconds behind the Australian.

However, a late collision from the side with Dunfee, seeming to use his elbow to upset the Canadian’s stride, saw Arai disqualified and Dunfee upgraded to bronze, with Yu in fourth position.

Evan Dunfee of Canada after finishing 3rd in the Men's 50km Walk Final. Pic: Sportsfile
Evan Dunfee of Canada after finishing 3rd in the Men's 50km Walk Final. Pic: Sportsfile

Heffernan’s fifth-place finish continues his fine record at major Championships, clocking 3:43:55, ending up 2’17” outside bronze.

Letterkenny’s Brendan Boyce finished 18th in 3:53:59, but Leevale AC’s Alex Wright did not finish, succumbing just past the 30km mark.

Heffernan said there was still a medal on his mind until quite late: “Because anything can happen. Fellas can collapse and fellas can be DQed, and I just had to keep on working in the here and now.

“It didn’t happen, but sixth is good – sixth in the Olympic Games,” Heffernan enthused before his position would be lifted by one place.

“It just goes to show, age is only a number. I know there are other factors there that I could go: ‘I could have been better.’

“I’m still one of the best in the world, and it’s great. I’m still in the mix so I have to be happy.”

The 38-year-old is adamant he still wants to compete in next year’s World Championships, due to its proximity: “The London Olympics was very special, and with the athletics support from Britain and Ireland, London will be very special again.

“That was definitely motivate me and I want to thank everybody back home who supported me.”

On the final golden joust, Heffernan added: “Part of me feels sorry for Jared. He’s never officially won on the day.

“But the two lads are great champions. I’m delighted for them.”

Heffernan revealed the Olympic Council of Ireland have now received his upgraded bronze medal for London 2012. At first joking that the medal was in the possession of OCI chief Pat Hickey, he then confirmed it is at OCI headquarters in Howth, and a special presentation ceremony is being planned in Cork.

Boyce said: “I was hoping against hope that I could sneak a top 16. I knew conditions were going to suit me.

“I saw a massive group go off early on, but I felt there was not twenty people in the world who were going to beat me today.

“I was happy to be chasing and chasing and chasing. That was my race plan.

“My race plan was perfect for me for the day and top 20 was probably what I had in me.

“I was looking at the board at halfway, and I was around 35th or 36th and I was just thinking it’s impossible for this many people to be in front of me.

“I was happy to keep working for the whole race and my hip flexors blew off me at 35km, but my energy levels never went.”

“I was able to maintain.”

Toth is Slovakia’s first-ever Olympic race-walking medallist.

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