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Feature14 Apr 2020

Olympic title defence uncertain, Toth focuses on bigger picture


Matej Toth in the 50km race walk at the World Athletics Championships in Doha (© Getty Images)

Matej Toth hopes his body can withstand one extra of year of training in his push to claim back-to-back Olympic 50km race walk titles in Tokyo next year.

Following the decision by the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by a year following the Covid-19 crisis, thousands of athletes have had to adjust their plans to peak for the summer of 2021.

Given the fact Toth has not completed a race for more than 18 months, the delayed Olympics would appear to be an advantage for the Slovakian, although he does not necessarily read the situation that way.

“My case is little bit complicated because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make one more suitable winter preparation,” explains Toth, who will be aged 38 next year. “For me, it would be ideal if the Olympics was in October. But my personal benefit is not as important as the benefits of the majority of athletes.”

Currently in lockdown in Banská Bystrica, Toth, who is hoping to become only the second man in history to successfully defend an Olympic 50km race walk title, has experienced the full range of emotions in recent weeks.

In fantastic shape after a training camp in Tenerife and preparing to make his seasonal debut at the well-established international race walking meet in the Slovak spa town of Dudince in March, the coronavirus outbreak put an end to his plans.

“We tried to concentrate on training for as long as possible,” explains Toth. “But after the last training camp in Tenerife (we returned on 29 February) we realised the (Covid-19) problem is very serious. The competition was cancelled two weeks ahead of schedule. We tried to find other races, but day after day they were all cancelled too.

“It was very frustrating, I had been preparing for more than three months to complete in Dudince, with only one goal: to achieve the entry standard for Tokyo. I was very disappointed and sad. I thought I might as well throw my fitness in the rubbish bin. I was frustrated I could not compete but at that stage it seemed as though the Olympics would still go ahead. I realised it was impossible to do the entry standard and prepare for the Olympics – I didn’t have enough time for both.”

Matej Toth in the 50km race walk at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games


Yet once the IOC announced a postponement of the Games by a year to 2021, the decision brought clarity to athletes and it acted as a huge personal relief to Toth, who last completed a race when earning 50km silver at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin.

“The most important thing is the stress now eases,” says the 2015 world champion. “Now we can solve the most important thing – the health of the world. Before the decision to postpone the Games, we were under pressure. It was like we had fallen between two stools: preparing for Olympics and doing everything we could to stay healthy.”

Since taking European silver medal behind Ukraine’s Maryan Zakalnytskyy in hot conditions in Berlin, Toth has endured some challenging times.

Shortly after the European Championships, he encountered an issue with his right hamstring. Throughout the winter he would regularly train for a couple of weeks, only for the injury to reoccur.

He opted not to compete during the first half of 2019 but over time the hamstring issues eased, allowing him to put in an untroubled run of training leading in to the World Athletics Championships in Doha.

“My preparation for Doha was very good,” he says. “I had prepared to a similar level as I had for Berlin, maybe a little bit better. But it wasn’t good enough for the conditions I faced in Doha.”

Despite the race starting at 11:30pm, temperatures along the Corniche were in excess of 30C and Toth, unfortunately, toiled in the conditions and dropped out after 28km.

“It was the hardest conditions I’d faced in my career,” he explains. “I’ve tried to erase all memories of the race.”

Since returning to training post-Doha, he has endured an injury-free build up for “the first time in years” under the guidance of his coach, Matej Spisiak. Following a successful three-week high altitude training trip to Dullstroom, South Africa, in January and a stint in the Canary Islands, Toth now is currently back home managing his time in lockdown.

Matej Toth after winning the 50km race walk at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015


Living at home with his wife, Lenka, and two daughters, Nina (10) and Emma (12), there is little doubt in Toth’s mind the lockdown is the correct and responsible decision and he is trying to stay positive and make the most of the extra time at home.

“All schools in Slovakia are closed, so we are also teachers,” he explains. “As a parent, we help with homework and school projects. We cook and bake more often. We also do some work in the garden; we tidy our house. But after a long preparation in January and February, I’m very happy that I can spend more time with my family and do the ordinary things which I really value.”

Yet the downside is the Slovakian’s training has been badly compromised by the lockdown.

“The impact on my training has been high,” he explains. “It has been necessary to stay at home as much as possible. Also, our sports club is closed, so I train alone in the forest or at home. Luckily I have a treadmill. But without physio and limited contact with my coach (who lives 100km away in Nitra), I have been restricted.

“Following the winter training, I needed both a physical and psychological rest, so I have been training very easy – only one hour per day – during lockdown.

“It is just maintenance training and we’ll see how the situation develops. But I believe that the motivation and taste for training will return.”

As chairman of the athletes’ commission of the Slovak Olympic Committee, Toth is in regular communication with the state authorities and the national sporting federations to find solutions to the training restrictions.

Yet Toth is adamant that all restrictions should be respected and athletes should stay at home and train individually.

As for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next year, he is taking a pragmatic approach.

“All I can say is I’m very motivated, but my health is the most important thing,” he says. “So I will see day after day, week after week, if I will be able to prepare at the top level.”

Steve Landells for World Athletics