Now is not the time to walk away

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Rob Heffernan has done what few in Irish sport have, which makes the neglecting of his duty all the more frustrating as regards his legacy and that of his sport, writes Ewan MacKenna

There were many familiar faces dotted throughout the room. Derval O’Rourke. Thomas Barr. Gary O’Donovan. Natalya Coyle. Olive Loughnane. All there to honour just the seventh athletics medal in our Olympic history, the first since 2000, and the only one ever to be awarded on home soil.

It was Thursday of last week, 1,545 days after coming fourth in the 50-kilometre walk in 2012, and Rob Heffernan took to the stage to receive his bronze. Upgraded due to the doping of Russia’s Sergey Kirdyapkin, in front of 1,600 or so people he rightly gushed. “I’m not able for all this emotion. It is incredible.” But there in the corner of Cork’s concert hall was one face not many recognised or paid attention to.

It was that of Paqo Fernandez.

Earlier this year Heffernan and O’Rourke got together for a coffee and were talking about missing the moment when belatedly receiving a medal due to drugs. O’Rourke herself was recalling the 2010 Europeans where she won silver while he came fourth, behind Sergey Bakulin who was also subsequently caught cheating. “One of his strongest memories,” says O’Rourke. “He was telling me that in the airport there was loads of press and cameras and it was all about me. He’s since been upgraded but back then he was an irrelevance. He talked about how he’ll never get that back.”

It makes heart-wrenching sense if you didn’t realise around that same time as they met, Fernandez was again in Cork, posting Instagram photos of himself and Heffernan beside the words “planning for the season ahead” as if some sort of coach. This is where black and white merge into a needless and unfortunate grey.

The Spaniard himself had been one of the best in the sport for years. Olympic podium finisher. Three-time world silver medalist. Two-time European champion. He became a training partner for Heffernan in 2007 as the Irishman came in an impressive sixth at that year’s worlds, breaking from the pack for good. But by 2008 Fernandez was caught up in an investigation surrounding the shipment of packages by Walter Viru, once a cycling doctor. The Guardia Civil raided his home, finding EPO and other performance enhancing drugs. After co-operating with the police, he was adamant he never took any of it, but was banned for two years for possession while his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport became about the start date of the ban rather than any denial.

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However while other Irish walkers at training camps in the vacinty of Fernandez and his home town of Guardiz fled to far-away bases, Heffernan’s links remained strong.

“This is really stressful,” the Cork man said to me during the week. “I feel I’m trying to explain myself all the time when I haven’t done anything wrong. On a factual point, Paqo never ever failed a test. I’ve questioned him and he told me he never doped so I had to make a decision as a friend. I don’t think it’s fair my name is being dragged through the mud. Ah look, I don’t know where you’re going with this, it’s ridiculous, it’s an insult to me. I 100 per cent don’t agree with doping.” Actions however scream, words merely whisper. Fernandez acted, Heffernan has only whispered.

This isn’t guilt by association although Heffernan has said in his recently released book about failing a drugs test himself last year. With hernias in both hips, he awoke from an operation to find testers there. They found hydroxyethyl starch in his system, a masking agent for EPO, but he was cleared when the doctor showed it was in medicine he was given. But it does fit in with the many contradictions in the arguments he makes. Heffernan for instance has bemoaned the amount of tests he has been put through, before these Olympics noting that “it’s like the guards now, it’s a statistic thing”.

Only it isn’t and that’s due to the connections he chooses to keep and the line he chooses to walk.

Athletics is riddled and while there are those who will cheat, the decisions of the likes of Heffernan mean there’s no yang to their yin, no right to their wrong. Instead he’s enabling someone who has been found guilty and banned from the sport to remain about the sport. Sure enough, he talks of friendship but this is about getting help from someone who cost Heffernan and others. When a bank owner is robbed, what would you think if you saw him lunch with a bank robber? If a TD makes strange rezoning calls, how would you feel if he’s drinking with developers? Athletics has reached the point where if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Of all people, Heffernan has no excuse for that. Glance back across his own gutsy career. At the 2002 Europeans, Fernandez won, well clear of Heffernan in eighth; in Athens in 2004 he was disqualified trying to keep an unsustainable pace partly set by Fernandez who took silver; Fernandez took a podium at the 2007 worlds when Heffernan had to be happy with sixth; he came in a place behind Fernandez when eighth in Beijing. Keep your friends close…

During the week he talked to me about clean athletics but that comes with a responsibility. Given how little we know about the seedy alleyways and what goes on down the dark backstreets of sport, those within have to help. Some have been trying to jimmy open the lid of Pandora’s Box from the outside but are met by athletes with dumb faces, by lies and omerta, and what we don’t need is protectionism. So what exactly does Heffernan expect us to do given this all this? Party like it’s 1996?

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The haze around any clarity continues though. Heffernan maintains no more than friendship and that “I only see Paqo just when I’m passing through Spain”. Such answers raise questions. Why then in 2012 did Heffernan say, “He is always willing to give a hand, but I don’t work with him in an official capacity.” Why then did a Tweet from October 2014 from the account of Heffernan and his wife refer to “Coach Fernandez”? Why did Fernandez just this year end up in Cork saying he was helping plan Heffernan’s season? Why after that was he on holidays in Morocco at the same time Heffernan had a training camp there? Why were they together just last week?

Without offering clarity, Heffernan is merely causing confusion.

If it’s merely an attitude issue it isn’t good. Put Rob Heffernan and Russians into Google and see what comes out. The first headline reads that he “rues the Russian absence at the Olympics” while he is quoted as saying their doping “never bothered me”. Granted he’s quick to defend that. “This is things being twisted,” he tells me. “The Russians being in the race motivated everyone.” Contrast that with the attitude of other racewalkers though. Australian Jared Tallent has had as many medals stolen but the top headline reads, “Tallent calls for Russian ban to stand”. Other quotes that come up are “second place to a drug cheat a disgrace” referring to his 2008 Olympics and “dirty cheat” flashes up in relation to Alex Schwarzer returning from a doping ban.

Back at these Olympics, very fair questions were asked about Mo Farah’s connections to certain coaches. Here in Ireland, it got a good reaction but nothing stinks worse than hypocrisy based on sharing a passport. Heffernan may never have put anything wrong into his body, but he needs to realise rhetoric too can do damage to both his sport and his achievements.

13 November, 2016

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