Evan Dunfee dug into his reserves in relentless heat and humidity to become likely the only Canadian who will ever win an Olympic medal in the men’s 50-kilometre race walk.
The 30-year-old from Richmond, B.C., snared a bronze medal Friday in Sapporo with a gutsy closing surge.
The International Olympic Committee will drop the 50k from the Summer Games program in the name of gender balance. Men and women race the 20k, but the 50k has been male-only since becoming an Olympic event in 1932.
Dunfee called its removal from the Summer Games “absolute bollocks.”
“‘’It’s really does just break my heart,” he said. “The solution would have been to put a women’s 50k in. The women deserve it.”
Dunfee had confidence in his ability to out-suffer the competition in Friday’s steamy conditions for 25 laps of a two-kilometre loop.
Fifth when the bell sounded on his final lap, Dunfee picked off Portugal’s Joao Vieira and then caught Spain’s Marc Tur over the final 200 metres.
Summoning thoughts of friends and family watching him on television back home, as well as the memory of his late grandmother, propelled Dunfee to the podium.
“Started to have cramps and was just kind of at my limit. I asked my body, 10, 15, 20 times to give me a little bit more, a little bit more. It wasn’t giving it,” Dunfee said.
“Coming around that final bend with 500, 600 metres to go, I just asked one more time.
“At that point in the race, I was just thinking about my friends and family back home walking every step of the way with me, and thinking about my nana who would have been walking every step of the way with me.
“Channelling that energy, and their love and support, my body said ‘OK, go. Here’s another gear.”’
Gold medallist Dawid Tomala of Poland finished in three hours 50 minutes eight seconds, ahead of Germany’s Jonathan Hilbert in 3:50:44. Dunfee crossed the line in 3:50:59.
The Canadian also overcame sweltering temperatures at the 2019 world championship in Doha, Qatar, to win bronze.
The temperature for the 5:30 a.m. start in Sapporo was 25 C with 70 per cent humidity. By the time Dunfee crossed the finish line, it felt like 34 C.
Ten men, including French world-record holder Yohann Diniz, dropped out before the finish.
“I just know that I can rise to the occasion in those conditions,” Dunfee said. “They are brutal. It doesn’t make it any easier.
“I think there’s just that level of confidence standing on the start line with a big smile on my face knowing I’m going to cope better in these conditions than some of my competitors.”
Guillaume LeBlanc is Canada’s only other race walk medallist with a 20k silver in Barcelona in 1992.
An emotional Dunfee lambasted the IOC and World Athletics during the post-race press conference for pulling the 50k from the 2024 menu in Paris. Both Tomala and Hilbert applauded him.
“After the race, our physiotherapist was talking to his 10-year-old daughter. She watched the entire thing start to finish,” Dunfee said.
“That girl was glued to her TV watching that race for four hours. It’s absolute bollocks the excuse the IOC gives for why they’re getting out of the event. They don’t like it. It’s a free event. They can’t make money off of it.
“I think we’ve proven time and time again, it’s an exciting race, it’s an Olympic race. The 50k is the epitome of what it means to endure. It’s the longest foot race of the Olympic Games.”
Dunfee placed fourth in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. He briefly held bronze-medal position when Hirooki Arai of Japan was disqualified for bumping Dunfee.
Arai was reinstated to bronze upon appeal. Dunfee didn’t challenge that decision, saying he didn’t believe Arai’s disqualification was warranted in the first place.
“That race for me in Rio was indicative of how much I’ve grown through sport,” Dunfee said. “Growing up, I was the kid that, winning was all that mattered.
“Through great coaches, not least of which my coach Gerry Dragomir, he helped me grow. He helped me change my perspective and see that sport isn’t always about winning. That race in Rio, I was successful, because I left every ounce of energy out on that racecourse. That was my goal for the day.
“Coming into today, the goal was the exact same. I wanted to have a race I would be proud of.”
Tokyo’s organizing committee moved the marathons and race walks to Sapporo in Japan’s northernmost prefecture in pursuit of cooler temperatures, but race conditions were still sultry Friday.
Mathieu Bilodeau of Quebec City finished 45th.
The race walk on Sapporo’s streets afforded the public the chance to see an Olympic event in person.
When Tokyo entered a state of emergency July 12 because of rising cases of COVID-19, Japanese spectators were barred from most venues.
Race walkers must maintain contact with the ground at all times.
The lead leg must be straight when the foot makes contact with the ground and remain straight as the leg moves under the body.
Judges issue warning cards for infractions. If an athlete is warned three times by three different judges, that race walker is shown the red paddle and disqualified.
Dunfee wants to compete in next year’s world championship in Eugene, Ore., so friends and family unable to travel to Tokyo can see him race there.
He’s planning on taking a coaching course and hasn’t ruled out running for Richmond city council in the fall.
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.