If you asked most people around about race walking, you’d probably scrape up just a few who would be reluctantly willing to take a look at it. Most would dismiss it without a second thought. The truth is that it is nowhere near as elegant or attractive as sprinting, running middle distances or triple/high jumping. But I’ve got to tell you something; I’ve got the greatest respect for race walkers and the hard graft and endless mileage they put in day in day out, while their events are among the most mentally/physically demanding and straining. You just keep going and going for endless stretches near maximum effort and you’ve got to sustain that for a long way.
Unlike marathons, however, race walking races are substantially more open to prediction than many other events, without that meaning they can’t be unpredictable. If you look through the results of various major championships, you will pattern out certain trends and notice certain individuals that figure very prominently. Simply, there aren’t many secrets when it comes to tactics in race walking, it’s a relentless stretching pace from the off and only very few will last to the late stages where usually most medals are effectively decided by the last kilometre or two.
Apart from similar factors to influence performance found in the marathon, like the shape and lie of the course and weather conditions, a significant consideration that comes into play is the technical individualities of the event that may easily lead to controversy as well. Walkers must not lift from the ground and have got to have their trail leg straightened at any given time, which many times can not be so easy to tell and thereby the officials’ judgement weighs into the equation too. There can be ‘soft’ and ‘strict’ officials around and no matter how illegal one may be one has got to receive two warnings first before receiving marching orders in the end, at the command of the chief official at that. Moreover, each official can serve a single warning alone to the same walker. Thus it can become complicated in certain cases where ‘clout’, the weight of the athlete’s name that is, may also prompt different responses.
I’m going to back Olympic and World champion Valerie Borchin (RUS) as favourite to come on top of an anticipated close affair and retain his title over the distance. He is back in good form as indicated by winning in a classy 1h18:55 at Rio Maior, backed up by a sound 1h19:43 at Sesto St Giovanni, on a long unbeaten run and he is renowned for his consistency and tactical awareness, therefore a good guarantee; while he is expected to receive plenty of assistance by a strong Russian team around him. Best of whom is arguably European champion Stanislav Emelyanov who will be a contender for the title himself in his own right.
The Chinese challenge is anticipated fierce and 20-year-old Zhen Whan emerges as a major threat having won every single race on the circuit and clocked the two fastest times in the world this season, 1h18:30 and 1h18:37, as well as dipping three times inside 1h20. He is going to be a tough nut to break by the look of things. Besides him, 22-year-old Yafei Chu holds the third and fourth fastest times, topped by a best of 1h18:38, and U20 Ding Chen follows with an impressive 1h18:52 to form a formidable trio that threatens to spoil the Russian plans.
Local favourite Hyunsub Kim (1h19:31), Mexican Eder Sanchez (1h19:36) and Aussie Jarred Tallent are others to watch out for.
Prediction 1.Valeriy Borchin (RUS), 2.Zhen Wang (CHN), 3.Eden Sanchez (MEX)
Valerie Borchin wins the 20km in Daegu
Result 1.Valeriy Borchin (RUS) 1h19:56, 2.Vladimir Kanaykin (RUS) 1h20:27, 3.Luis Fernando Lopez (COL) 1h20:38
Vera Sokolova and Anisya Kirdyakina (RUS), the bronze and silver medalists in Barcelona last summer, are lying a street ahead of everyone else at the head of the global rankings with 1h25:08 and 1h25:09 respectively, third and fourth fastest times in history, and seem poised to settle matters between them as concerns gold.
However, matters may not be quite as they appear at first sight. The master of the game over the last several years has been their more renowned compatriot Olga Kaniskina, 26, who has won every single major title since Osaka 2007 and is the second fastest ever over the distance in 1h24:56 (2009). She is lying just seventh in the world in 1h28:35 at the moment but that could be well misleading as was the case last year before she enforced her rule with authority at the Europeans once again. Despite the relatively young of her age, she is vastly experienced as well as most consistent and will turn a daunting figure among the field in the morning.
By implication, the Russians have got a very good chance of making a clean sweep of medals although the young Chinese duo of Hong Liu, brone medalist in Berlin and third fastest in 1h27:17, and U23 Senjie Qieyang, fifth fastest with 1h28:04, may have designs of their own. The fourth Russian, Tatiana Mineeva (1h28:09), Spaniard Beatriz Pascual (1h28:51), and Japanese Kumi Otoshi (1h29:11) should be noted also. Italy’s Elisa Rigaudo, the bronze medalist in Osaka, is outside 1h30 this season and will be going into the race as a dark horse.
Britain is represented by Commonwealth champion Jo Jackson (1h31:50), a top ten finisher at the Europeans, who will be attempting to land a placing in the top dozen or thereabouts as solid stepping-stone towards London next season.
Prediction: 1.Olga Kaniskina, 2.Anisya Kirdyakina, 3.Hong Liu
Result: 1.Olga Kaniskina (RUS) 1h29:42, 2.Hong Liu (CHN) 1h30:00, 3.Anisya Kirdyakina (RUS) 1h30:13, …, 23.Jo Jackson (GBR) 1h35:32
European champion Yohan Diniz hasn’t raced on the roads this season but has set a staggering world record of 3h35:27.2 over the same distance on the track, which merits even more given the lower bounce and perpetual bends of a track compared to the long stretches of a road course. The Frenchman is on a roll and therefore can firmly assume the favourite tag starting a race where weather conditions will weigh in even more due to the vast duration of the event.
Russian Sergey Bakulin, third in Barcelona behind Diniz, has improved by nearly five minutes and heads the world rankings on a big PB of 3h38:46 so will be expected to pose questions allied with his more renowned countrymen Sergey Kirdyapkin, the defending champion, Denis Nizhegorodov, Beijing bronze medalist and holder of the world best on the road in 3h34:14 (2008) – without an equivalent pedigree in major championships nevertheless.
The Chinese boast a strong presence of three walkers in the top six in the world this season, namely runner-up Si Tianfeng (3h38:48), fourth-placed Faquang Xu (3h42:20) and sixth-ranked Jianbo Li (3h43:38), but remains to be seen whether they are going to translate it into a real threat, while Slovakian Matej Toth has marked vast progress of nearly 14 minutes into 3h39:46 and has to be taken into account as well.
Osaka world champion Nathan Deakes (AUS) is working his way steadily back after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and this race may come a little too early for him, a SB of 3h48.29. His compatriot Jared Talent, silver medalist in Beijing, could figure high despite having not raced over the distance this term. He has shown good form with a fast 1h19:57 over 20km if it is anything to go by so he shouldn’t be dismissed. Luke Adams, sixth in Berlin, makes up a very good trio for the ‘Kangaroos’.
Other notable names are very consistent European silver medalist Grzegorz Sudol (POL), Berlin silver medalist Trond Nymark (NOR), Spaniard Jesus Angel Garcia and Irishman Robert Heffernan.
Prediction 1.Yohan Diniz (FRA), 2.Sergey Kirdyakin (RUS), 3.Grzegorz Sudol (POL)