Walking Tall: How Leitrim and Ireland's race-walkers have made their presence felt at Olympics

Former Olympic race-walker and Leitrim native Colin Griffin speaks to Newstalk Sports' Raf Diallo

Colin Griffin, Ireland, race walking

Ireland's Colin Griffin ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Being from Leitrim is a bit of an exclusive thing - I would know!

There aren’t many us, although you will run into your fellow county men and women in the most unexpected of places.

We easily laugh off any jocular digs about having one traffic light among other things. But in truth we do punch well above our weights as a county with many high-profile examples of people who have achievements in their respective fields.

Race-walking is one such example. Indeed Leitrim had not one but two Olympic race walkers at London 2012.

One was Ballinamore native Colin Griffin, who had previously competed at Beijing four years previously. The other was Laura Reynolds from my own townland of Eslin (just outside Mohill) - who was also in my class in secondary school.

For a county of our size, having two athletes at an Olympics in the same discipline is an outstanding feat.

But if you spread the map beyond Leitrim to the whole of Ireland and our prowess in race walking has seen us stride purposefully above our weight.

We all know 2013 world champion Rob Heffernan who will be aiming for a medal in 2016. We have had Olive Loughnane who was recently awarded a gold medal retrospectively for the 2009 world championships after the demotion of a Russian athlete.

For a small country that’s pretty impressive. But as Griffin does point out, Ireland’s record at race walking is interesting in another way.

“It’s not an event that we compete in huge numbers internationally. We have a small handful of athletes who have done quite well in this event and been quite competitive at world level. So I suppose it is a quality more than a quantity approach. It’s not like we have a huge amount of people competing in the event in Ireland compared to other events.”

That we certainly have, even without taking world champions into account.

I caught up with Griffin this month ahead of a Rio Games that will see his former 2012 Olympic room-mate Heffernan take part in the 50K walk along with Lettterkenny-born Brendan Boyce and Alex Wright, who is also scheduled to take on the 20K version.

Griffin - now a director at Altitude Centre Ireland and is no longer involved in competition - and Laura Reynolds won’t be in Rio, with the latter unfortunately hampered by injuries since London 2012.

Ireland's Laura Reynolds and Olive Loughnane and after finishing 20th and 13th respectively ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

But by both making it to the last Olympics, Leitrim was well represented at the most recent Games and will be again this time.

“I suppose if you look at it, we’ve had two race walkers in the last Olympics. Breege Connolly is going to be our fifth Olympian at the Rio Olympics this month, so we’ve done quite well in athletics and then as disciplines go, race walking has been quite strong I suppose in terms of representatives in Beijing and London,” he says.

Both of Griffin’s parents have strong athletic pedigrees, with his mother having competed internationally across a number of events and his father having been involved in coaching.

Indeed the latter started Ballinamore Athletics Club, which is where he got his early grounding in sport, as well as Gaelic football until the age 15 when he began focusing solely on athletics.

“I chose race walking or race walking chose me. In my club, my Dad would have always coached the event and race walking is the sort of event where it depends on the club you’re in and if a coach has a particular specialist coaching knowledge in that area and people kind of tend to gravitate towards that,” he explains.

After shining at an under-13s event at the Community Games, race walking became the natural route to go down.

“I distinctly remember my mother coming up to me after the race and saying ‘you’ve got a future in this event and I guess that resonated with me,’” he recalls of the time before he left for university and then eventually began training with the likes of Heffernan and Loughnane early on.

The Community Games also put Reynolds’ potential on the radar later on with Griffin playing a role in her development.

“In the county of Leitrim, our club would have been associated with an expertise to coach race walking so she would have come to train with my Dad and then my parents early on encouraged me to help her a bit more because I was 18, 19 and would have had a lot of experience over the years and achieved things that she was aspiring to do so my parents encouraged me to get involved and I began helping her a bit more and by the time Laura reached 14, 15, I was properly coaching her and giving her schedules and sessions and then from there I was part of her journey right through to London 2012 and for the few years beyond that,” he says.

She went on to a strong 20th place finish in the women’s 20K walk in a personal best time of 1:31:02.

Griffin, meanwhile, took part in the men’s 50K event, but unfortunately was disqualified before the end amid rules, for example, that one foot must appear to be in contact with the ground at all times.

Ireland's Colin Griffin competing in the Men's 50k Race Walk at the 2011 IAAF World Athletics Championships, Daegu, South Korea ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

A red card is handed out by judges for each infringement with three resulting in disqualification.

No judge can give a particular athlete more than one card in each race but it is all done with the human eye and has internal nuances as Griffin explains.

“It’s a subjective opinion of the judge. They have to form their own judgements without any technology so it’s a bit like a referee. It’s how they interpret the rules. You have a panel of 20 judges who are international level judges and the way it worked for me, statistically the facts are there. There could be a panel of four judges who gave me a red card no matter where I raced or no matter how good or bad I was, they always gave me a card. So I could see the panel of judges, so I saw certain names on it, I could almost be certain that I was always going to get cards from those judges because they didn’t accept my build, my style or anything like that. But, again, I was in my 20s, so there wasn’t much I could have done structurally or anatomically. I could only make things as could as they could be and try to improve things all the time. But it wasn’t enough for some people,” he says, while also explaining that when a race walker is not bunched together with other athletes at certain points in the race, judges can then scrutinise an individual’s technique in isolation.


Another aspect of the rules of course is the spectre of doping which has been brought to light by the Russian scandal.

Indeed, the man who crossed the line first at the 50K in London, Sergey Kirdyapkin, was later disqualified, pushing Heffernan up from fourth to an Olympic bronze medal.

During his own race walking career, Griffin did have suspicions that he did compete against athletes that had been doping.

“I would have been aware of anecdotal stories about what goes on in Russia from people who were part of that system but moved away from it and found a bit of safety in telling people what went on. All through my adult competitive career I was aware of it. We all would have been but there’s nothing we could do about it.”

Echoing previous comments from Heffernan and Loughnane on the matter, Griffin does not hold any anger towards the Russian athletes themselves.

“We don’t blame the athletes because they’re taken away from school at 14 and they’re told that they need to go on this programme to fulfil their potential. They take EPO and they take other things in the same way we might take some sports drink to help us recover or whatever,” he says, pointing more towards those higher up administratively in state-sponsored doping programmes as the ones culpable.

“They’re the ones that should be blamed and they’re the ones that should be punished and that’s what’s happening now particularly in athletics for Russia.”

But he does add that, “You can’t live your life wondering or worrying or making excuses. Rob [Heffernan] went over to the World Championships in 2013, in Russia, in Moscow, in their backdoor, before the whole doping programme unravelled and he beat their top athletes and won a world title, and Olive would have been quite competitive against them as well. I beat a few Russian athletes in my time as well and so has Laura, so you have to go there and still compete and treat them as equals.

World Athletics Championships men's 50km walk gold medal winner Robert Heffernan ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

“I do believe you can still do those performances clean. It just takes that little bit longer to get there. These guys at 18, 19, do performances that 30 year olds take years to get up to, so it just fast-tracks them up there.

And although Ireland has done well in race walking over the years, Griffin sees even more potential for the generation that follows Heffernan and co if improvements are made in certain areas.

“Coming from Ireland we tend to just develop and mature that little bit later,” he explains.

 

“Compared to other countries - and Rob has said this himself - if you look at Russia, take away the doping which is rampant, but they still have a good system there and they’re taken out of school at 14, 15 and they’re training in a really good structured environment and yes, the doping is an issue there, but if we had some of that training structure at a young age, we might actually break through at the world stage that little bit earlier and maybe get a bit more out of it.”

There’s always room for improvement but by both getting to the Games in 2012, he and Reynolds both made a wee county very proud indeed.

And with any luck, Heffernan could add an Olympic gold to the world championship he already has in his cabinet.