Robert Heffernan cast aside a history of fourth-place finishes and broke a 30-year Irish men’s gold medal drought when he won the 50km Race Walk on Wednesday morning.
Heffernan crossed the finish inside the Luzhniki Stadium in 3:37:56, just over a minute clear of Russia’s Mikhail Ryzhov.
The 35-year-old Irishman has finished one place outside the medals so often recently that he was given the nickname “Mr 4th” in one athletics publication. He was fourth in both the 20km and 50km walks at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona and again in the London Olympic 50km last year.
Now, after coming out on top in a savage battle between 30km and 40km with Russia’s Mikhail Ryzhov, Heffernan has become “Mr Gold Medal”, and done so against some of the strongest opposition in the current home nation of race walking.
It is 30 years since Ireland won a men’s gold medal at the World Championships, 30 years indeed since it won a men’s medal of any colour. The last was when Eamonn Coghlan burst off the final bend to win the 5000m at the first World championships in Helsinki in 1983. The date – 14 August – the same date as the Moscow 50km Race Walk.
Back then, Coghlan was able to pump his fists in celebration even before he had passed Soviet runner Dmitriy Dmitriyev. He knew he was going to win. In an even further coincidence, Coghlan was a well-known fourth-place finisher himself, having finished in that place behind John Walker in the 1976 Olympic 1500m final and again behind Miruts Yifter in the 1980 Olympic 5000m final.
Heffernan, too, could have celebrated before the end of his race. He virtually won the gold medal when he broke clear of Ryzhov coming up to the 40km mark.
That surge was the culmination of a series of surges over the previous 10km as both men swapped the lead.
Poland’s Grzegorz Sudol had led narrowly at 30km with Heffernan, Ryzhov and Ivan Noskov of Russia in close attendance. But soon afterwards it was a race in two between the Irishman and Ryzhov with the others dropping back.
Ryzhov made what appeared to be his big effort at 35km and succeeded in putting some 10 metres between him and Heffernan. But the Irish walker had soon clawed his way back up and re-taken the lead. Similarly, Heffernan enjoyed a few mini-breaks as the pair fought back-and-forth.
At 21, the Russian is a relative newcomer to the longer walk, having made his debut in Saransk last year. He improved to 3:44:41 in finishing fourth – that number again – at the European Cup Race Walking earlier this year.
Australia’s Jared Tallent grabbed his fifth medal in Olympic or World Championships competition in taking the bronze medal in 3:40:03. Tallent was in the lead with Ryzhov and his Russian team-mate Ivan Roskov early in the race. At 10km, the trio led by almost 30 seconds before they were swallowed up by the pack.
The Australian dropped back to seventh at the half-way mark before fighting his way back up through the field to overtake Sudol and move into third in the last 10km. He finished just over a minute clear of Ihor Hlavan of Ukraine.
Tallent now has bronze (20km) and silver (50km) from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, a bronze in the 50km from the Daegu World Championships, a silver in the 50km at the London Olympics and now a bronze again.
It is an impressive effort, but the competitive Tallent will have been disappointed to again miss the gold medal here.However, he will have got some financial compensation by the fact that his 14 points from the final IAAF Race Walking event Challenge propelled him into first place in this year's series with 34 points and he took the USD$30,000 first prize in addition to his USD$20,000 for finishing third in Moscow.
He overtook Portugal's Joao Vieira, whose fourth place in the 20km on Sunday had boosted his points tally to 28 points and he lead the standings until Tallent crossed the line in the longer event.
Matej Toth of the Slovak Republic finished sixth while Sudol and Noskov dropped back to sixth and seventh place, respectively.
The race started in humid conditions after overnight rain. While the temperature remained moderate, the humidity also remained high throughout, making for trying conditions.
Len Johnson for the IAAF