Athletics

Irish Olympian's Entire Career Could Be Ripped Away From Him Overnight

Irish Olympian's Entire Career Could Be Ripped Away From Him Overnight

According to reports, the IAAF will next week vote to remove the 50km walk from World Championships and Olympics.  This is not something which is going to happen far down the line. If its deletion from major events does happen, it is likely to occur following next year's World Race Walking Team Championships.

Race walking is a discipline in which Ireland has a rich history. Gillian O'Sullivan won silver in the 20k at the 2003 World Championships. Olive Loughnane won gold in the 20k at the 2009 World Championships.

In recent years, Rob Heffernan won bronze at the 2012 Olympics and then gold a year later at the World Championships in Moscow.

For two-time Olympian Brendan Boyce, who was speaking to Balls.ie, the IAAF decision could mean the end of his athletics career.

If they get rid of the 50k, I'll probably be finished with the sport and athletics as well.

They're planning to make a decision now and scrap it next year - which is ridiculous. You can't give athletes a year's notice about their whole careers.

The Donegal athlete, and many other world class race walkers, only found out about the IAAF's intentions days ago via a Facebook group. The organisation's secrecy has been of particular annoyance. Boyce calls their tactics 'underhanded'.

I just heard about it yesterday morning [April 5th]. There's a Facebook group set up, general stuff about race walking goes in there. It was coming from one of the Australian guys. We were almost a day behind getting the info.

I was trying to digest it and figure out, 'Is he for real?' It became apparent then that whatever information he was putting out was good. The last day and a half, it escalated. There's been no denial from the IAAF.

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Athletes had no idea that the possible abolition of their event was coming down the line. If anything, Boyce says, walkers felt there was progression being made - little adaptions which would make the sport more appealing.

The 50k is the only male event on the athletics programme which does not have a female equivalent. However, just this year, for the first time, world records were accepted for women over the 50k distance.

We thought things were going in the right direction. For this to be thrown out there at this short notice - not that there was any real notice - it came as a shock to everyone involved.

For Boyce, it is a particular wrench. Having just turned 30 following last summer's Olympics, he is now entering his peak years as a race walker. In Rio, the gold and silver medalists, Matej Toth and Jared Tallent, were both in their 30s.

There is also a clear progression in Boyce's career. Being a medal contender at the Olympics in Tokyo was his long-term aim. At the swipe of a pen and pounding of a stamp, all that planning could be ruined.

I PB'd in London; PB'd in Moscow; PB'd in the European Championships; was unfortunate to be disqualified in Beijing but I still PB'd that year in 2015; in Rio moved up from finishing 29th in London to 19th.

In my head, I had a long-term plan for Toyko. If I knew Rio was going to be the last Olympic 50k, it could have been a different race or preparation. You definitely have to play the long game in the 50k. For them to take it away in less than a year, after 2018 it's gone, it would be heartbreaking.

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One of the reported proposals for race walking which will be discussed at next week's IAAF meeting is the changing of the 20km walk to a half marathon event (21.1km).

Dropping down to the shorter event would not be a viable option for Boyce. The aim to be a medal contender at 50k would not be realistic at the shorter distance.

I've never really trained for 20k. I don't know what my potential is but it's definitely not going to be contending for medals in three years. That's what I was aiming for in Tokyo. I wanted to go to Tokyo and be a medal contender. If I moved back down to 20k, I'd be just another athlete again. I wouldn't be where I want to be.

I've been talking to people about preparation for Toyko already. Trying to get organised with physios and support for down the line. We don't have to resources to just pick people and pay them. We have to source them and plan this in advance. There's a lot of planning already gone into what's going to happen over the next four years. It's all going to be for nothing if they get rid of the event.

Boyce, who has been racewalking since the age of 12, first competed at 50k in 2010. Two years later he was at the Olympics. In the seven years in which he has competed in the event, he has only raced the distance nine times. Tremendous time and effort go into preparation for occasions which are rare.

Boyce has heard nothing from Athletics Ireland regarding next week's vote. Considering Ireland's medal history in racewalking, that could certainly be considered strange.

It would be nice to know that they are as concerned as the athletes. It's my future. I've put my whole career aside to focus on athletics. If the event is not an Olympic event, then, obviously, they won't be funding it. I could be left high and dry next year with no career. Back to square one.

When next week's vote takes place, Boyce will be in a training camp preparing for the European Cup in May. If the news comes through that the 50k is no longer an Olympic and World Championship event, Boyce says it could be tough to get himself motivated.

It would also mean that the World Championships in August being the final ever major 50k race.

If London is going to be the last big 50k event, there's no point in holding back. You'd have to go full tilt in training and then there'd be no holding back when it came to race day. No thinking about getting injured or a plan for development in the future. You'd just be all in for that one race. It would be interesting.

You can sign a petition opposing the removal of the 50km walk from the World Championships and Olympics at Change.org.

PJ Browne
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