My highlight of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Had someone told me four years ago that my highlight of the 2016 Olympics would be a race-walking event, I’d have laughed in their face.
For years, race walking was the one athletics discipline I had no interest in. But in recent years I’ve understood the event better and have developed an appreciation for it.
The discipline is often the butt of jokes, but it shouldn’t be. I think it was British race walker Tom Bosworth who put it best when he recently compared race walking to the breast stroke in swimming: it might not be the fastest method of getting from A to B, but it’s a race nonetheless, and a more technical one at that.
*Climbs off soap box*
The men’s 50km race walk in Rio had everything an elite sporting contest should have: terrific racing, drama in abundance, and a late burst for victory. And on this occasion, for the first year in a long time, there was little chance of the outcome being ruined by drug cheats.
The expected battle between the three favourites turned into a five-man contest. And all five of those athletes approached the race in their own way.
World record-holder Yohann Diniz shot off at the beginning and built up an 83-second lead by 20km. But he soon paid the price for his exuberance and, without going into graphic detail, the end result wasn’t pretty.
Canada’s Evan Dunfee – perhaps the biggest surprise of the race – was next to take the lead. As Evan is also a friend of mine, I was naturally getting more nervous and more excited as the race went on. He looked strong for the few laps he led, but I was trying – with difficulty – not to get too carried away.
“Wait for 35km,” Evan’s training partner Inaki Gomez told me. “That’s when the real racing begins.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Australia’s Jared Tallent then began to make his move. Most people who closely follow the sport will be familiar with Jared’s story, but for anyone who doesn’t know: Jared has earned a shedload of major titles, but has rarely had a chance to stand on top of the podium. Many of his gold and silver medals – including the 2012 Olympic title – have been retroactively awarded to him after drug cheats have been caught.
On top of being one of the greatest race walkers in history, Jared is a bloody nice bloke too. So as tough as it was to see Evan lose hold of pole position, I was equally delighted to see Jared at the front. Few people deserve Olympic glory more than he does.
A hamstring injury had hampered the last few weeks of Jared’s training leading into Rio, but he looked strong during the closing stages. So much so, I began to type up my report.
I wrote about how Jared has had to be patient many times throughout his career – both on the roads and off it. In much the same way that he has had to wait for medal upgrades, I wrote, he had patiently waited to make his move on the roads around Pontal on his way to winni…
Hold on. Is it just me or is Matej Toth closing in on Jared?
He is, I thought, as I was stood in the road-side media tent watching the race unfold on a TV screen. Matej is catching Jared. And now he has passed him.
And hang on a minute, what the hell is happening further down the road?!
Behind the Matej-Jared duel, Evan had been passed by world bronze medallist Harooki Arai and was out of a medal position, but he doggedly clawed his way back. On the final lap, Evan and Hirooki were shoulder-to-shoulder. And then there was contact; enough contact for Evan to be completely thrown off his rhythm.
Evan tried getting back into his stride. There were fleeting moments when it looked as though he was closing on Hirooki, only for Evan to lose his form again as Hirooki maintained his stride. And then it seemed as though Hirooki would catch a fading Jared.
Out in front, Matej was away and clear. The world champion became the Olympic champion in the most dramatic fashion. Jared held on for silver, while Hirooki finished third and Evan placed fourth, smashing his own Canadian record with 3:41:38.
There were some notable performances further down the field, too.
Diniz, who stopped a few more times and even fell at one point, rallied to the end and finished eighth. The likes of Norway’s Havard Haukenes, Brazil’s Caio Bonfim and Australia’s Chris Erickson played a more cautious game, making their way through the field to finish in the top 10, all three of them setting PBs.
And Spain’s Jesus Angel Garcia – who is probably older than the grandparents of some of the other athletes in the race – was contesting his 584th Olympics (or something like that). The 1993 world champion eventually crossed the line in 20th place.
The drama wasn’t quite over, though.
The road-side referee decided to disqualify Hirooki for obstructing Evan, meaning that Evan moved into the bronze medal position. Soon after, some Canadian friends and I may have celebrated with some cocktails. We may have also been a bit premature.
An hour or so later, following a protest from the Japanese team, Hirooki was reinstated to the bronze medal position. And Evan, who had been an Olympic medallist for all of 97 minutes, wasn’t even angry.
“I made the decision not to appeal, as I believe the right decision stood,” Evan said afterwards. “Contact is part of our event – whether written or unwritten – and is quite common, and I don’t believe that this was malicious or done with intent. Even if an appeal to CAS were successful, I would not have been able to receive that medal with a clear conscience and it isn’t something I would have been proud of.
“I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision,” he added. “I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”
What a class act.
So too is Matej, the winner. As disappointed as I was when Evan and then Jared surrendered their leads, it was difficult to be upset with the eventual winner when he spoke so well at the post-race press conference.
“When Jared pushed the pace, I didn’t think I could get gold,” Matej said. “I told myself that he deserves it, and that he will be a great Olympic champion. It was only in the last 4km that I thought I could do it. It wasn’t easy for me, but everyone wants to win.”
Yes, the record-breaking feats of Wayde van Niekerk, Almaz Ayana and Anita Wlodarczyk were stand-out moments from Rio. Bolt’s triple, of course, was also amazing. But this is a race I won’t forget in a hurry.
And this is why the 50km race walk was my highlight of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.