Beijing, ChinaLiu Xiang’s portrait may be hanging all over Beijing as the Olympics approach, but it is China’s race walkers who have brought their country consistently high-level performances in international track and field years before Liu’s breakthrough at the 2004 Olympic Games.
That hardware includes two Olympic gold medals: the 1996 women’s 10km Race Walk, won by Chen Yueling, and the 2000 20km Race Walk won by Wang Liping.
This weekend (Fri 18 / Sat 19) China continues its gloriously successful race walking tradition as its best walkers will test their competitive skills at the biggest venue of their careers: Beijing’s National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, for the "Good Luck Beijing" 2008 IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting
This year the China stop of the IAAF Challenge comes to Beijing after previous years in Shenzhen, Yangzhou and Cixi to serve as the Olympic test event. It is the first time the spectacular, 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest will be open for competition.
The “Good Luck Beijing” Olympic test event series began last year, steeping China’s capital city in elite sporting events seemingly every week. Successful test events have included table tennis at Peking University, track cycling at the Laoshan Velodrome in western Beijing, and rhythmic gymnastics at Beijing University of Technology - and that was just in a two-week period in December. During April, Beijing is playing host to seven test events, of which the opening of the Bird’s Nest with the IAAF Race Walking Challenge surely among the most anticipated of events.
The men’s 20km event sets off at 9:00 a.m. Friday, April 18, local time. The women’s 20km event will follow at 3:00 p.m. on the same day, and the men’s 50km will be held on 19 April at 7:30 a.m.
It’s a less than closely guarded secret that this event will serve as China’s Olympic Trials, and the competitors will have their hands full, with temperatures forecast to be as high as 25 to 27 degrees Celsius.
However, most of the top Chinese race walkers entered in the event set their personal best performances when competing in China, so if the weather and race conditions are favourable, spectators have an excellent chance to see world class performances from the talent pool assembled for this event.
China should own this event in Beijing, and with good reason: the top three Chinese competitors, training partners in Yunnan Province under coach Li Zewen, have stellar resumes when competing in Asia. The best of the bunch is Yu Chaohong, the Area Record holder at the distance (3:36:06), who won the 2007 IAAF Race-Walking Challenge this time last year when it was held in the southern border city of Shenzhen. He set the Area Record at the Tenth National Games in Nanjing in October 2005.
His compatriot Zhao Chengliang took the silver medal behind Yu at the Tenth National Games, where he set his personal best of 3:36:13. He also won the 2007 Asian Championships in Amman, Jordan, where China won the medal count with 7 gold medals and 16 total medals.
Xing Shucai placed fourth at the 2007 IAAF Race-Walking Challenge in Shenzhen and set his personal best of 3:37:58 when he was second at the 2005 national championships in the city of Nanning in southwestern China’s Guangxi Zhang Autonomous Region.
Like the men’s 50km, the women’s 20km Race Walk is likely to be dominated by a strong Chinese field. Top entrants include Liu Hong, the 2006 World Junior champion in the 10km when the event was held in Beijing and the 2007 Shenzhen Challenge champion at 20km. Her personal best, 1:28:26, was set at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Yangzhou in 2006, where she came in third. She is also a national-class marathoner with a personal best of 2:38:10.
Compatriot Jiang Qiuyan, the two-time World University Games champion, has a personal best of 1:28:01, set when the IAAF Race Walking Challenge was held in Cixi, Zhejiang Province in 2005. Jiang Jing, the 2005 national champion, was the silver medallist in the 2004 World Race Walking Cup and holds a personal best of 1:27:19, set during her gold medal winning walk at the ’05 nationals.
The top three Chinese in the men’s 20km event include Han Yucheng, a bronze medallist at the 2006 World Race Walking Cup in La Coruña; Zhu Hongjun, the Area Record holder thanks to his 1:17:41 in 2005, making him the sixth fastest walker at this distance of all-time; and Chu Yafei, a World University Games champion in 2007 at age 18 who sports a personal best of 1:18:44.
The Chinese will have a run for their money, so to speak (no joke intended), in this 20km event, arguably the most open event of the three to be contested this weekend. Top international competitors include Australians Luke Adams, the 2007 overall winner of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge series, and Jared Tallent, who broke the 80-minute barrier for the distance at the Australian championships in February. They will be challenged by the veteran Hatem Ghoula of Tunisia, the African record holder at 1:19:02 and last year's World bronze medallist, and the Mexican duo of Eder Sanchez, 4th in Osaka, whose PB is 1:19:02 when competing in the Challenge in Cixi City in 2005, and David Mejia, who set his personal best of 1:25:49 on March 8 in Chihuahua.
Mary Nicole Nazzaro for the IAAF
Click here for Full start lists and results for each event