Heffernan hits out at dopers: “I hope they all get caught”
It might have taken more than four years, the moment might have long since passed, and sure, there’s still a hint of anger when he talks about what dopers have taken from him, but for Rob Heffernan – who was presented with his European 20km race walk bronze medal in Cork on Friday evening – it’s still a case of better late than never.
Heffernan finished fourth in both the 20km and 50km race walks at the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010, but was recently upgraded to bronze in the 20km event after Russia’s Stanislav Emelyanov was disqualified for irregularities in his biological passport.
“It’s a lovely feeling,” said Heffernan, shortly after being presented with his medal by Sonia O’Sullivan. “I was bitterly disappointed at the time, and to have a 20k international medal now is something that makes me very proud. I did have suspicions at the time, and you’re always hoping in every race you finish fourth in that it’s going to turn into a medal, for whatever reason.”
Heffernan has since finished fourth in the 2012 Olympics in the 50km event, and then went on to take gold in the same event at the World Championships in Moscow last year.
You ask him if he feels bitterness about originally having that medal, that moment, stolen from him, along with the commercial rewards that it would have brought his way.
“There is a bit [of bitterness]. Commercially, you can lose out on a lot of money, funding-wise, support-wise, because a medal is different to fourth. If you have a medal, so much more can be done, and you often make a livelihood out of it. If you don’t have the money to support a proper structure, you can’t train like a full-time athlete, and if you can’t do that you’re not going to be able to compete with the best in the world.”
For many years, Heffernan has felt he has to adhere to a different set of anti-doping procedures than certain competitors of his, particularly the Russian athletes who have often dominated the race walks. “I’ve been tested 35 times since London ,” he says. “If I go on a camp, I could be tested four times in a week, but that’s normal. I’m world champion so you’re going to be tested X amount of times. Other countries don’t have that. If you go in and test in Russia you have to get a visa, the same in China, and there’s suspicions in the Ukraine as well that there’s little or no testing.”
In the Olympics in London, Heffernan finished fourth in the 50km race walk, which was won by Russia’s Sergey Kidyapkin. While Kirdyapkin has never
tested positive or been directly implicated in a doping scandal, Heffernan can’t help but have his suspicions, given the Russian was coached by Viktor Chegin, who has coached 17 athletes who have tested positive and was dropped from the coaching team at the European Championships in August in connection with the anti-doping probe into the Russian race-walking centre in Saransk, where Chegin and Kirdyapkin were based.
“I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the Russian doping story, but it doesn’t shock me,” says Heffernan. “For me, it’s wrong and I hope they all get caught and I get another medal from Barcelona, a medal from the Olympics, but I kind of don’t want to know about it because I know if I can do what I did I London, do what I did in Moscow, that I can still be up there mixing with the medals.”
Indeed, instead of getting downbeat about losing out on medals to doping cheats, Heffernan believes athletes need to focus on what they can do, within the rules, to better their performances. “If we got athletes back to Sonia O’Sullivan’s standard, running as fast as Derval O’Rourke, as fast as Mark Carroll, John Treacy, Jerry Kiernan and Donie Walsh over the marathon, we’ll have a very healthy sport. That’s where we can improve; we need to put in proper structures so that the athletes can train full-time to do that, and get the talent in to do that.
“Having that environment where you’re sleeping, eating, training, and aiming for a championship. That’s the lifestyle you have to live. You don’t get a pat on the back for it. I wish I didn’t have to do it or there was an easier way, but it’s just the job.”
Far from being discouraged by revelations of doping among his competitors, Heffernan sees it as proof that the current anti-doping measures are proving effective. However, he’s not naïve enough to believe there aren’t still athletes able to evade the testing. “If they keep implementing what they have now, profiling the athletes, the results they’re getting show the sport is getting cleaner, but it can be a cat-and-mouse thing,” he says. “Maybe they’ll start doping athletes now before they get on the biological passport so their passport will be always doped; I don’t know.”
For now, Heffernan’s mind is firmly focused on getting back to his best in time for the World Championships in Beijing next August. After recently discovering the root cause of his underperformance and subsequent dropout in the 50km event at the Europeans in August, he has good reason to feel positive about the year ahead.
“I’m flying, I’m very happy,” he says, when asked about his current fitness. “I found out I’d a hernia in Zurich and I had nerve damage in the groin. I questioned everything about myself after that race, and now it’s fixed I feel I’ve a load of energy again.
“I want to get back to competing and training hard again, regardless of if I win a medal or not. I’m going to try win a medal again, anyway, but I’m happy just to be healthy. I’m very motivated.”
To Hear Heffernan’s interview with Cathal Dennehy, check out this week’s podcast here