Exhausted and barely able to stand, a stunned Evan Dunfee emerged from the medical tent to cheers and celebrations among the Canadian camp – 45 minutes after he’d collapsed over the finishing line in fourth place of the grueling 50K race walk at the Olympics in Rio.
Moments earlier, while receiving treatment and being rehydrated, the 25-year-old Richmondite had learned the race referee had promoted him to the bronze medal spot due to contact - with Japanese rival Hirooki Arai about one kilometre from the finish.
Despite the celebratory mood now engulfing Dunfee, among the first words he said were spoken very softy to his awaiting father, Don.
“Dad, I don’t like this.”
Dunfee senior said his son knew there something “not right” about the decision to bump the Richmond Olympian into what would have been an incredible podium finish for an athlete who can count on one hand how many times he’s competed at the endurance distance.
Less than two hours later, Dunfee junior’s gut reaction to being given the bronze medal by the referee proved to be somewhat prophetic, after an appeal of the referee’s decision by the Japanese walker’s team was upheld.
The medal was gone, before Dunfee even had a chance to see his reflection in it, let alone hang it around his neck.
What was to follow, however, was praise from some of the highest quarters of the sport, fellow Canadian Olympians and around the world after Dunfee graciously refused the opportunity to appeal to the Courtof Arbitration for Sport (COS).
“I was kind of surprised (by the reaction),” Don Dunfee told the Richmond News from his east Richmond home on Monday, after flying back in from Rio the previous day.
“Evan didn’t really do anything, other than the right thing. It doesn’t say much for sport that doing the right thing receives so much accolade.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of my son; he did it the right way, but I wouldn’t have expected anything else from him.”
In a Q and A with the News from Rio on Saturday night (see full answers below), Evan Dunfee said that, after collecting his thoughts, eating some food and then watching a video of the race, he knew straight away he’d made the right decision not to appeal.
And, content he had made the right call, News' "Road to Rio" columnist Evan Dunfee was happy enough with the fact he had shattered the Canadian national record by more than two minutes with a time of 3:41.38.
In a statement released Friday night through Athletics Canada, Dunfee said: “Not many people can understand the pain athletes are in, three and a half hours into such a gruelling race. I believe that both the Japanese athlete and myself got tangled up, but what broke me, was that I let it put me off mentally and once I lost that focus, my legs went to Jello.
“Contact is part of our event, whether written or unwritten and is quite common, and I don’t believe that this was malicious or done with intent. Even if an appeal to CAS were successful, I would not have been able to receive that medal with a clear conscience and it isn’t something I would have been proud of.
“I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”
During the race, Dunfee’s sportsmanship also drew admiration from across the country and gained him and his sport thousands of new fans.
As he approached struggling race leader Yohann Dinitz, who had stopped altogether, he patted the Frenchman on the back and the two continued on. His action drew this response via twitter from Clara Hughes — Canada's most decorated Olympian.
“I was impressed by Evan. His gesture to struggling French walker, his effort and class. The short lived medal a bonus. I'm still in awe.”
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his congratulations — before and after the medal controversy.
“The appeal didn't go his way, but we're proud of Evan Dunfee. “Still a Canadian record holder.”
The McNair and UBC graduate’s class and dignity even made him a popular choice on CBC’s informal poll on who should be Canada’s flag-bearer at Sunday’s Closing Ceremonies. He finished third behind stars Penny Oleksiak and Andre De Grasse — both multi-medalists at the Games.
Dunfee actually led for a large portion of the race after he passed Dinitz. However, he was eventually reeled in by three competitors — eventual gold medalist Matej Toth of Slovakia, silver medalist Jared Tallent of Australia and Arai. He was sitting fourth before mounting one final late surge to pass Arai when the infraction occurred.
Donald Dunfee relived the moment he realized, on a big screen trackside in Rio, that his son was blazing the trail deep into an Olympic final.
“I noticed he was close to one of the favourites and thought, for a second, that he may have been lapped,” said Dunfee senior.
“But he was leading. My child was leading in the Olympics at the 33K stage. If I’m honest, I didn’t really believe it was possible to hold that, as there were world record holders and world champions all around him.
“I certainly considered the possibility of him winning, but it’s the kind of race where you have to think about actually finishing it.
“Earlier, at about the 15K mark, I shouted at him, ‘Go Evan.’
“He shouted back, ‘It’s really early, I’m not going anywhere.’”
Dunfee senior also revealed how Evan’s great, great uncle on his dad’s side, called Rover Forsyth, (Evan’s middle name is Forsyth) competed in the Stockholm Games for Canada in 1912 in the marathon and the discus.
In an interview with the CBC, Evan Dunfee told how the upbringing from his grandmother, on his mother Karen’s side, had played a part in his decision not to appeal to the COS.
According to Evan’s mom, his grandmother, Jessie Lane, AKA “Nana,” watched her grandson’s Rio races from her Richmond home.
She will turn 98 next month and has nurtured and followed Evan’s every athletic footstep since he could run – or walk pretty fast, as it happens.
“She gave a lot of her time to Evan when he was a child,” said Karen Dunfee.
“She never judged anybody and never had a bad word to say about anybody. I know how important “Nana” is to Evan and he spoke with her briefly after his 20K race (in Rio); that was very emotional for all of us.”
Evan Dunfee Q & A with the Richmond News from Rio on Saturday night:
Q: Given that you have trained and prepared for years for that moment in Rio, what was going through your mind when you were leading with just a few kilometres to go?
A: There were points in that race where I was just happy to be there, and the fact that I was in the lead was a huge surprise. But I quickly had to talk myself out of that and remind myself of all the work I did to get here and that I belong at the front of this race, pushing the pace with some of the best guys our event has ever seen!
Q: And what was in your mind when Arai brushed past you and you seemed to lose everything, momentarily?
A: When Arai came back past me again and we got tangled up, I mentally lost focus. I had been so internally focussed on myself and my technique and fighting for every step. But when we tussled, I allowed that to bring my focus to an external point, thinking about what had happened, allowing myself to think that Arai might beat me, and as soon as I did that my legs buckled and began to cramp. The last 800m were pretty tough.
Q: You seemed to regain your composure after that moment, how did you manage that?
A: Step by step. I knew after that third place was going to be out of reach, but my event is technical and I still had to get to the finish line with proper technique and with my legs seizing up, that was very hard to do. I just tried to focus on making sure every step was good. The last 100m I don’t remember much. I saw the finish line and I remember getting closer to it, but I don’t actually remember getting there.
Q: You collapsed after the line? Has that happened to you before?
A: It is fairly common in 50km races and you saw it with a lot of people. It is just such a gruelling event and I really gave it every ounce that I had!
Q: Did you have any input in the original decision to appeal your fourth place?
A: So, there never was an original appeal. Canada asked for a review of the tape and the head track referee decided then that an infraction had taken place and disqualified Arai. Then, the Japanese appealed and it was accepted and the decision was overturned. I had no say in any of this and rightfully so. After the race, I wasn’t the most coherent and was struggling pretty badly with dehydration.
Q: Given the tumultuous events after the race, how did you handle all of what was going on around you?
A: Immediately after, I was just trying to process things as best I could. I was not in the best state of mind to make sound decisions, so I just tried to go along with what was happening. Once I got back to the village and got some food in me, I was able to think a bit clearer and once I saw the video I knew that I didn’t what to appeal any further!
Q: Away from the race, when you woke up on Saturday, the day after the race, what was the first thing that came to mind? And how did you feel, mentally and physically?
A: I got out of bed, thought I felt pretty good, took my first step and then fell back onto my bed! The day got better though and I was actually able to strap on some goalie pads for a bit of street hockey. Mentally, I felt great, knew it was the right decision.
Q: Is there anyone you would like to personally thank in helping you get this far?
A: I have had amazing coaches in sport throughout my entire life. Starting with my dad and others in baseball, to Ken Johns as my first track coach, to a whole bunch of guys named Peter, who coached me in track and hockey over the years! And then Gerry Dragomir as my race walk coach; I’ve been with him since I was 11 and he has definitely helped shape me as a person. Obviously my parents as well, they’ve taught me to always speak my mind and to be honest with myself and I can’t thank them enough for that.
Q: I assume your eyes will now be fixed on the next Olympics?
A: Yes, standing on top of the podium in 2020 is the goal!
Q: Finally, when will you be back in Richmond and what are your plans for the rest of the summer?
A: I am off to Maui next week for a family vacation and then back to Richmond to try to settle down, maybe move out of my parents’ house. I’m excited to get back coaching with the Richmond Kajaks and see all the little rascals who gave me so much strength over the year with their unconditional support!