The impressive Taicang Library and Museum Centre, situated alongside the actual course itself, was the splendid venue for the traditional pre-event press conference ahead of the 26th IAAF World Race Walking Cup on Friday (2).
Dignitaries and officials provided some warm words of welcome ahead of the largest Cup to be staged outside Europe – both in terms of IAAF Member Federations present and number of walkers competing – before handing over the stage to a selection of invited athletes.
“The participation is 50% up on the last time the Cup was held in China, in Beijing back in 1995. This shows how this event has grown and the fact that athletics is a universal sport. It also sets the scene for two years when the athletics world’s eyes will be on China, with the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang next year, and also the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in 2015,” commented IAAF General Secretary Essar Gabriel.
“Race walking is at the heart of Chinese athletics success. Of course, it was in walking that we won the first Olympic gold medal in athletics in 1992 and that has led to the discipline's popularity with the Chinese population in the last 20 years,” said vice president of Chinese Athletics Association Shen Chunde.
“Taicang citizens have got a very strong sense of the fundamental values of sport,” added Du Xiaogang, Mayor of the Taicang Municipal Government, reflecting on why Taicang was a bidder for this year’s Cup.
“They know it can lead to a long and high quality life. In fact, we have 65 citizens in the city who are over 100 years old! Events like this can have a long lasting impact on the city’s future development. Specifically, talking about race walking, we have had three years of a very successful IAAF Race Walking Challenge event here and our citizens, seeing race walking at the highest level, have their awareness raised about health and sport.”
Athletics for a Better World
In addition to the main competitions this Saturday and Sunday, with five individual and team titles each at stake, a special Citizens Fitness Walking Activity, as part of the IAAF programme Athletics for a Better World, will take place in Taicang on Friday afternoon.
More than 5000 race walkers will take part in a 2km race, over one circuit of the Cup course, and have been invited to donate their used sport’s apparel to the event’s nominated charity, the Taicang branch of the Red Cross.
However, to be expected, most of the media attention was focused on the five men and women who are expected to be among the medal contenders this weekend.
Inevitably, the two Chinese guests, Olympic 20km champion Chen Ding and three-time IAAF World Championships medallist Liu Hong, were asked about what it will feel like to perform in front of a home audience.
“There is pressure, this is my third appearance at the Cup and I’ve had an (knee) injury this year, and it’s been a slow recovery. This time, I’m leading the Chinese team so there is a responsibility,” said Liu, somewhat seriously.
By contrast, Chen was in a much more light-hearted mood and did not appear to have too many worries, despite his picture from his London 2012 triumph being plastered all over the city and being literally the poster boy of the Cup.
“There is inevitable pressure, but let’s look back. In 2012 I won the Olympics, it was like a dream come true and that changed my life completely. But I went from the top to the bottom in the next 12 months with injuries. Since I got the silver medal in Moscow, I have been training very well, without any interruptions, so I expect to do well,” added Chen who, remarkably considering his success, is still only 21.
Another athlete upon whom there is a pressure to perform is the Australian race walker Jared Tallent.
After a plethora of silver and bronze medals at global events, he has the mantle of being the favourite for Saturday’s 50km race walk.
“There is a definite trend for me. This will be my sixth World Cup: I finished 75th in my first one in 2004, 14th, 10th, third and then second at the last one, two years ago in Saransk. In that respect, it’s a natural progression that I’ll win a gold here, but we will have to see,” said the affable Australian.
“However, I have a special relationship with China. I got two medals at the Olympics in Beijing and I’ve always had outstanding performances here.”
The two Spanish speakers on the podium were at the opposite ends of the age spectrum: Spain’s former Cup winner Jesus Angel Garcia, who is now 44 and who will be competing in his 11th Cup in Taicang, and Colombia’s 2012 Cup junior women’s winner Sandra Arenas who, at 20, was not even born when Garcia won his first Cup medal.
“I’m very happy to be back in China. I won a silver medal when the Cup was here in 1995 and I think I may be the only ‘survivor’ of that race. I can also say I learnt a lot when I’ve raced in China,” said Garcia, paying tribute to the host nation of this year’s Cup.
“Will this be my last Cup? Maybe, although I’m perhaps walking's answer to The Rolling Stones and I’m going to keep going for ever, never having a goodbye tour,” added the ever-quotable Spaniard.
Arenas glanced occasionally at the evergreen Garcia, clearly wondering whether she was going to still be in the sport in 24 years’ time.
Well, she might be if she keeps on winning, or manages a record like Garcia, who has placed in the top six of the 50km on nine of his 11 appearances.
“I think I might cause a surprise again," said the diminutive Colombian. "I know the Chinese and Russians have been training hard, but so have I."
Phil Minshull for the IAAF