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Canada's Evan Dunfee digs deep for bronze in hot, gruelling 50-kilometre race walk

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SAPPORO, Japan — Canada's Evan Dunfee surged the final metres of the Olympic men's 50-kilometre race walk to claim a bronze medal Friday.

The 30-year-old from Richmond, B.C., reached the podium in a race of attrition amid the heat and humidity of Sapporo. 

The temperature for the 5:30 a.m. start was 25 C with over 70 per cent humidity. When Dunfee crossed the line, it felt like 32 C.

Poland's Dawid Tomala captured gold 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 knew how to manage heat over 25 laps of the two-kilometre course. He endured sweltering conditions at the 2019 world championship in Doha, Qatar, to win bronze.

Dunfee was fifth, however, when the bell sounded on his final lap. He passed Portugal's Joao Vieira and then caught Spain's Marc Tur over the final strides.

"My body gave me everything today," Dunfee said. "Coming around that last bend I asked for a little bit more. 

"I thought about my parents, my friends, my nana who isn’t here. I thought of her. She always used to say (I had) wings on my feet. 

"I don’t need a medal to validate myself. I’m proud of what I accomplished today, but I have been dreaming of this moment and winning this medal for 21 years. I am over the moon."

Dunfee was among the last men to earn medals in the Olympic 50k walk.

The International Olympic Committee will remove the event from the Summer Games program for gender balance. There isn't a women's 50k race walk. Men and women both compete in 20k.

Guillaume LeBlanc is Canada's only other race walk medallist with a 20k silver in Barcelona in 1992. 

Dunfee finished fourth in 50k, and was briefly in bronze-medal position, in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

Hirooki Arai of Japan was disqualified for bumping Dunfee but was reinstated to the bronze medal upon appeal. 

Dunfee didn't challenge that decision, saying he didn't think Arai's disqualification was warranted in the first place.

"Hopefully, today means we can stop talking about Rio," Dunfee said. "I loved that moment because it has given me a huge platform. It has allowed me over the past five years to be able to speak to over 10,000 school kids in my local community and talk about the value of sport and what sport has turned me into. 

"I was the kid that broke hockey sticks if I lost. I defined myself by winning or losing. Sport helped me grow and change and transform into someone who in Rio could say, 'No, I don’t need a medal to validate my success.'"

Tokyo's organizing committee moved the marathons and race walks from Tokyo to Sapporo in Japan's northernmost prefecture in pursuit of cooler temperatures for the athletes. Race conditions were still steamy Friday.

Dunfee spent the race in a chase pack behind early leader Yadong Luo of China, and then Tomala when the Pole opened up a lead later in the race.

Dunfee stayed in the dwindling chase pack. He appeared to lose steam with four kilometres to go, but dug into his reserves to stay in the podium hunt.

French world-record holder Yohann Diniz was among 10 men who dropped out before the end of the race. 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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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