When Jared Tallent talks of 2016 being ‘a big year’, it is no exaggeration.
An Olympic 50km race walk silver medal in Rio, an IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships victory in Rome, plus a belated gold medal ceremony for his success at the London 2012 Olympic Games, sure made for an action-packed year for the down-to-earth Australian to reflect on.
“I’m not sure that has ever been done before, having two Olympic medal ceremonies in the same year for the same event,” smiles Tallent.
Upgraded to 50km gold following the disqualification of Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin for an anti-doping rule violation from the 2012 Games, Tallent was elated to finally celebrate his moment at the top of the podium on Melbourne’s Treasury Steps in June. Being denied the chance to mark his success on the day will always hurt the race walking icon, but toasting the achievement in his home state of Victoria provided some special memories for the athlete who grew up on a potato farm near Ballarat.
“It was great to have all my family and friends there at the ceremony,” explains Tallent. “To look out at the crowd and see so many familiar faces was great. It was pretty special to receive the gold medal that way.”
In London, Tallent had become the first Australian man to win athletics medals at successive Games, having secured 20km bronze and 50km silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The aim in Rio was to bank a medal at a third successive Olympics.
He endured a frustrating start to his 2016 campaign. In February he badly strained his hamstring and couldn’t race walk for six weeks. Thankfully, his fitness returned quickly and at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome he triumphed in the 50km event by a margin of almost 1:30. Again, though, he missed out on his moment of glory on race day itself as the victory only followed the later disqualification of Italian Alex Schwazer for an anti-doping rule violation.
Tallent looked all set for Rio but then he picked up a minor hamstring tear just two days before leaving his European training base in Italy to depart for the Australian Olympic team camp in the US.
Drawing upon his now considerable international experience, the Adelaide-based race walker wisely chose not to panic and withdrew from his secondary event, the 20km, as a precautionary measure.
“I’m a positive person, so I tried not to let it get to me,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t anything too serious. When I started back walking for my first three or four walks, I felt a sensation (in the injured area), but after a while it settled down and a couple of days before the 50km race I was 100% ready to go.”
Content to let world record-holder Yohann Diniz set a blistering pace at the front for the first half of the race, Tallent chose to remain in the chase pack close to world champion Matej Toth of Slovakia.
When Diniz’s race blew up because of stomach problems, Tallent made his move to the front at 40km, and after opening up a 22-second gap on Toth at 45km he appeared destined to retain his Olympic crown.
Yet the Slovakian would not be denied and on the penultimate two-kilometre circuit he caught Tallent. His lead at 48km was two seconds and with Tallent unable to respond that grew to 18 by the finish line.
“It was devastating,” admits Tallent of the moment when Toth caught him. “I wish I had played it a bit smarter and remained more patient, but I gave it a bash. Matej is an incredibly tough opponent. No one got close to him at the World Championships last year, so he was always going to be the guy to beat. I’m proud to come second, but also disappointed because I thought I had the race in the bag.”
Since Rio, Tallent has taken time out to “drink some cocktails” with his wife, coach and 2012 Olympic race walker Claire, in the Thai resort of Phuket. He competed at the four-day Around Lake Taihu race in China and recently completed the New York Marathon as a training exercise in 3:43 – albeit 24 minutes slower than his wife completed the distance.
The chase for a world championship medal continues
As a four-time Olympic medallist spanning three Games, it is tempting to ask what next for the 32-year-old, yet he remains as motivated as ever. Adopting a more relaxed approach to training than in his younger days, Tallent fully intends to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games where he hopes to emulate Volodymyr Holubnychy of the Soviet Union (1960-1972) and become only the second race walker in history to win medals at four successive Olympics Games.
But before Tokyo his most pressing engagement will be to compete at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 next August.
“I have still never won a World Championship (gold) medal, so that is something I really want to do,” explains Tallent, who has won world 50km silver medals in 2011 and 2015 and a bronze in 2013 “To go back to The Mall venue from the London 2012 Olympics and win would be pretty incredible. That is a big goal at the moment.”
So why does Tallent continually return to take on the punishing endurance test of the 50km race walk?
“As crazy as it sounds, I just like the challenge of the event,” says Tallent. “Then again, what is not to like about winning medals at Olympic Games or World Championships? That is what keeps me going.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF