For 20 years he had dreamed of this, but only in the past two did he plan for it.
Under a scorching sun in Rio on Friday morning, 33-year-old Matej Toth kept his cool best in the men’s 50km race walk, playing his cards late to win Slovakia their first ever Olympic medal in athletics. That it was gold, that colour he had dreamed of when he took up this sport all those years ago, made it all the sweeter.
“This is very special for Slovakia,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the medal ceremony and a celebration at the Slovak house here in Rio.
“But,” he added, “the biggest celebration will be at home.”
It was there, in his hometown of Banska Bystrica, that Toth took up race walking as a 13-year-old. He was placed in a special athletics class at school, earmarked early on as a well-rounded sportsperson likely to find success.
In his first try at the race walk, his talent wasn't immediately obvious – Toth finished second in a schools race – but he was bitten by the bug from the outset. “I dreamed of winning the Olympics when I started but maybe two years ago it started to be my plan,” he said. “In school I decided to do it with a bit more concentration because I wanted to make the Olympics.”
The road less travelled
Making a decision like that at such a young age meant years of hard work lay in store, though Toth has never been afraid of that, even if his chosen obsession in a fringe discipline always made him stand out. “Race walking is big in Slovakia, but it is not like football or hockey,” he said.
Toth progessed steadily, consistently, finishing eighth over 20km at the IAAF World Championships Berlin 2009, then going on to take fifth over 50km at the London 2012 Olympic Games. At the 2014 European Championships, he took silver behind the world record performance of France’s Yohann Diniz, but Toth’s time finally arrived last year in Beijing, where he soloed his way to his first global title.
That made him a marked man heading into the Olympic year, but throughout much of 2016, Toth was worried he may not even make it to Rio.
“It was really hard,” he said. “From February until June I had a small injury. I rested completely for two weeks when I got it, and I could still train hard and compete, but it affected me a lot. It was very hard physically, especially in early June.”
Just eight weeks out from the Games, Toth says his chances of making it to Rio were no better than 50-50, though on a training camp in Spain, his body soon began to cooperate and come around.
“It started to be much better,” he said. “It was okay again to push hard and we realised we could train for a 50km. Getting to Rio after all that made this a very special race.”
Playing it late
Heading into Friday’s race, Toth had expected Diniz to take off early in the race, even if he thought it a dangerous strategy in such brutally oppressive heat. The Frenchman duly obliged, moving away from the field in the opening kilometres and building a lead close to two minutes by the halfway mark. At that point, Toth was content to nestle in the chasing pack, conserving his energy for the closing kilometres.
“It was very warm,” said Toth. “It was very important to wait until 40km or 45km.”
Out front, Diniz’s exuberance began to backfire at the 32km mark, the Frenchman struggling with stomach issues and overwhelming fatigue and being forced to stop. Soon after Toth and the chasing pack moved past, he started again, but Diniz's title chances were long gone.
Canada’s Evan Dunfee was the next to go on the attack, leading alone past the 35km mark. However, Toth and Jared Tallent of Australia soon closed the gap. Shortly after that Tallent made a bold move, the strongest of the race, and quickly opened a race-winning lead, or so his chief rival believed.
“He looked very strong, very fast,” said Toth. “When he pushed the pace I didn’t believe I could win the gold medal. I thought to myself: ‘he deserves it, he will be the Olympic champion, I’ll try to be behind him'.
“I thought the time was too much to close back, but after 44 kilometres I saw he was slowing, so I tried to push, not to win but just to give all my energy – from my body, my heart, my mind – to the race.”
Approaching the last two-kilometre circuit, Toth finally closed in on Tallent, powering by and opening up an immediate advantage on the defending champion, who all of a sudden looked bankrupt.
Right when his competitors were falling by the wayside, Toth was going stronger than ever.
“In the last 4km I realised I can do it,” he said. “It was one of the hardest races of my career. The weather was even worse than in Beijing. It was only in the last 500 metres I knew I would win, because even with 1km to go, I was not sure if I would be okay.”
As he approached the finish line, Toth grabbed a Slovakian flag from one of his many supporters, allowing him to luxuriate in a memorable, historic walk to the finish line as he carved out a piece of sporting history for his nation.
For his coach, Matej Spisiak, himself a former international race walker, it was also a proud day, as it was for Toth’s father, who was out on the course roaring his son to victory.
“I had so many friends and family helping me to become Olympic champion and so many people supporting me on this journey," said Toth. “To them, I say: thank you.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF