Rob Heffernan stays focused on road to Rio Olympics

Any day now, and Rob Heffernan should be able to call himself an Olympic medallist.

Rob Heffernan stays focused on road to Rio Olympics

He’s not quite sure what to make of that. The Rio Games are another five months over the horizon, London and his other three appearances lost in a blur of previously pounded roads. Yet here he is, in February, awaiting word on events due to take place in a court room in Lausanne tomorrow.

The expectation is that there will be good news – within days or weeks - when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is done deliberating the case between the IAAF and six Russian athletes who were issued with selective disqualification by their own, now discredited, anti-doping agency.

Among those in the dock is Sergey Kirdyapkin, who won gold in the 50k walk at the 2012 Olympics, but later tested positive for banned substances. Heffernan came fourth in that race. So close, and yet too far back from a man that most knew even then to be dirty.

It isn’t totally new territory for the Togher AC athlete.

He finished fourth in the 20k at the 2010 Europeans in Barcelona, but was ultimately upgraded to bronze – over four years later - when Russian winner Stanislav Emelyanov was banned and stripped of his title due to irregularities in his biological passport.

That medal wasn’t just tarnished by the missed opportunity to stand on the podium. When his agent Derry McVeigh delivered the medal to his home in Cork they discovered that the inscription left something to be desired. ‘Hefferman’, it read.

The hope is that it will feel better second time around, but who can tell?

“It is still very surreal,” he said. “When you ask about it we are on about an Olympic medal here. I won’t know until it arrives. I initially did want to celebrate it. I didn’t want it to be forgotten about. I thought ‘everyone is going to forget about this now’. It’s an Olympic medal, it’s huge.”

That was the plan last December when he thought word from CAS was imminent. He was going to tie in the celebration with Christmas, but he’s in a block of heavy training now. Not even a sip of wine is passing his lips so there will be no open-top bus tour or civic receptions.

Not for now.

“I’m racing a 20k in Slovakia in March and no-one is going to care you have an Olympic medal when you are on the start line,” he said at a promotional event for sponsor Nissan. “I am putting so much into it that I want to be able to go to Rio being able to challenge for a medal.

“To go to an Olympics able to challenge for a medal is a huge thing because I know I could have a new story and go on to the next Olympics and spite people who say you are too old to compete in your late 30s and early 40s.” That’s for another day, the focus now is Brazil.

The hope is that he can replicate the seasons he put down in 2012 and 2013 – the latter ended with him claiming gold in the 50km at the World Championships, and in Moscow of all places – but the folded marked ‘what if’ is difficult to file away completely.

He knew his effort in London four years ago was a medal performance. He argued as much with the then Irish Sports Council and requested a four-year funding commitment to take him to Rio on the back of it, only to be rebuffed.

“When I was fourth in London the biggest thing afterwards is commercially because I do have a family and the reality is we all have to work and make money and fourth place is... you are not a winner. Nobody wants you, like.

“You are coming off the back of the plane from London, or strategically placed behind the boxers, because they feel a bit sorry for you and they say ‘look, we’ll put him here, this might keep him happy’. That’s the reality of it.

“You feel like a tool down there. They literally have me here because they feel sorry for me. Then you’re fine for a week and then you are completely forgotten about. So there are massive implications that way as well.”

He’s not bitter. Hasn’t time to be. This is about him, not the Russians or anyone else. Will they be in Rio? Will they be clean if they are? The worry now is that everyone else will relax now that the ground beneath their feet has shifted. Heffernan has no intention of doing that.

“I knew all through my career that the Russians were on drugs,” he said. “You lift your level. You’re more motivated to race against these fellas who are supermen. It’s definitely going to be cleaner, but who knows?”

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