World 50km race walk champion Rob Heffernan has added his voice to concerns about Russian athletics, admitting he was sceptical about so many elite walkers coming from one nation.
In July, it was confirmed that Cork athlete Heffernan would be retrospectively awarded a bronze medal from the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona after Russian Stanislav Emelyanov, who had taken gold, was banned for a doping offence.
Last week, Ireland’s Roisín McGettigan was presented with a bronze medal for the 1500m at the 2009 European Indoor Athletics Championships following the suspension imposed on Anna Alminova of Russia for a doping offence.
A documentary aired on German TV last week alleged widespread doping and cover-ups among Russia’s track and field competitors.
The Russian Athletics Federation branded the allegations in the programme as “lies”. The federation’s President, Valentin Balakhnichev, said that it was considering legal action in response.
Both the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which was implicated in the programme, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have said they will look into the claims.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport, Heffernan voiced his concerns about the approach being taken in Russia.
“I think that the mentality of ... the superpowers like that is that they’ll put everything in for their country to win" - Rob Heffernan
“There has always been the rumours,” Heffernan said. “Even with the walkers that I have competed against, I know how long it has taken me to get to the top and how hard I have to train. For a 19-year-old to pop out and walk a 50k in 3:37 or 3:38, you’re always kinda going: 'Is it possible?'
“Mentally and physically, for a 19-year-old to come out, even in Barcelona, Emelyanov that time, he was just out of Junior; and to blow away a field of world medallists and an Olympic champion, very, very strong athletes.
“For him to come out and be that composed... Over the past, I don't know, decade, there is 18 of them after being done for blood passports, or EPO or performance-enhancing drugs.
“I was over there; I raced in Russia; I raced in Saransk; I raced in Cheboksary. They’re getting all this added advantage of performance-enhancing drugs.
"But if you take away all of the performance-enhancing drugs, they have such an unbelievable system on the ground, with sports centres, with coaches, with training partners, with talent identification.
“So I think the raw material is actually very good, starting off with, and then if they go down that route then the possibility of getting good performances out of them is heightened again. And then you’re just disposable, you know: their life span [as an athlete] is very short.”
Heffernan said Ireland’s attitude to and testing regime against doping was markedly different.
“I think that the mentality of ... the superpowers like that is that they’ll put everything in for their country to win,” he said. “And there’s not the cultural thing that we have in Ireland. Like, if you take drugs in Ireland your whole life is destroyed.
“If you go down that road in Ireland, you’re tainted for the rest of your life.”
Heffernan agreed, in the wake of the allegations in the German documentary, there were now questions over the 50km result at London 2012, given the winner, Sergey Kirdyapkin, is Russian, though he made no specific claims about Kirdyapkin.
"Our anti-doping system in Ireland is so strong, that if they carry out that system in the other countries in the rest of the world, it will become a level playing field"
He hailed the testing regime in Ireland as obtrusive but reassuring.
“Since London, I’ve been drug-tested 35 times, you know. And while it became a massive inconvenience in my life, now when I look at it with all of the allegations when somebody gets good – could he be doping? Is he doping? – now I welcome it. It’s great.
"And our anti-doping system in Ireland is so strong, that if they carry out that system in the other countries in the rest of the world, it will become a level playing field.
“But I know for a fact in Ukraine; I was chatting with one of the Ukrainian walkers, and they train with the Russians as well, and they never get drug-tested.”
Speaking about the decision for him to be awarded the bronze medal for Barcelona 2010, Heffernan said he “couldn't believe when I was told in the summer that there was that possibility. But for it to actually happen then, it is mind-blowing that I have another medal.”
The medal will be awarded to him in Cork City Hall, and he said it would be a “massive celebration in Cork. We love our sport down here and it is gathering a bit of weight already.”