Krakow, PolandFor the second consecutive year, Krakow is a stopover on the IAAF Race Walking Challenge circuit. Once again, many of the world’s top race walkers will make their way to Poland’s former capital, as indeed they have since 1997, when the race walking legend, four-time Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski, first invited his colleagues from all over the world to compete in his home city.
This year’s races, taking place on Saturday, 24 May, once again promise to be of absolute top quality, featuring the World Cup champion Francisco Javier Fernandez, Olympic champion Ivano Brugnetti and former World champion Ilya Markov in the men’s 20 km, as well as the current Olympic champion Athanasia Tsoumeleka and former World Cup champion Ryta Turava at the same distance for the women. It will also, as usual, be one of the most spectacular races on the circuit, as the 1350-meter loop winds around the market square in the famed Old Town of Poland’s former capital, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fernandez leads the men’s field
The number one favourite of this year’s men’s race once again seems to be Francisco Javier Fernandez, a three-time winner of this race in the past, coached by Korzeniowski. The 31-year old Spaniard is coming to Krakow fresh off his second consecutive World Cup win. His full list of honours is too long to quote in detail; it suffices to say he is a two-time European champion, current Olympic and World Championships silver medallist, as well as a two-time IAAF Race Walking Challenge winner. This will be Fernandez’s chance to make amends for last year’s Krakow race, in which, starting as the number one favourite, he was forced to drop out due to injury.
Another man in form is the last year’s winner, Eder Sanchez of Mexico, who just turned 22 on 21 May. The fourth-place finisher in last year’s World Championships looks to be a star on the rise. In his three IAAF Race Walking Challenge races so far this year, he finished first in Chihuahua, third in Beijing and third again in the World Cup with a new PB of 1:18:34. In the overall Challenge standings, he is currently second, only 3 points behind Erik Tysse of Norway and is thus well positioned to take the overall lead after the Saturday’s race.
Ilya Markov of Russia will be another of the favourites on Saturday. The only man apart from Fernandez to win the Krakow race three times, he is showing no signs of slowing down despite having been part of the world’s race walking elite since 1995. The Russian was the World champion in 1999, World silver medalist in 2001, European champion in 1998 and Olympic runner-up as far back as 1996. Yet he has been in fine form this year, with two times just over 1:19 for 20 kilometres, including fourth place in the recent World Cup in Cheboksary.
The Italian Ivano Brugnetti is a man with two major championship wins to his credit. He was a surprising World champion at the 50 kilometre distance at the age of 23 in 1999 and five years later he again shocked many when he won the Olympic title at 20 kilometres. His success since then might have been less spectacular, but he managed to improve his PB last year when finishing second in the European Cup, and this year he has to his credit a second place in the Race Walking Challenge Race in Sesto San Giovanni.
Also in the field is Juan Manuel Molina of Spain. The former World and European Championship medalist is also in fine shape, having recently improved his PB in the World Cup race, where he finished eighth. The Spaniard already has five 20 kilometre races under his belt this year, including second places in two Race Walking Challenge competitions, in Chihuahua and Rio Maior.
Another potential challenger in the race comes from Ireland. Robert Heffernan, sixth in the World Championships last year, is a man in form, having slashed nearly a minute off his national record in Cheboksary two weeks ago. Two Belorussians, Ivan Trotski and Andrei Talashka, both with PBs under 1:20, should also be capable of featuring prominently in the race, as should the European Championships medalist Joao Vieira of Portugal. Finally, the Polish group hoping to challenge the top placings will include the former European U23 champion Beniamin Kucinski and the 50-kilometre specialist Grzegorz Sudol, seventh in the 2004 Olympic Games.
Tsoumeleka vs. Turava – women’s race
The women’s race will star one of the most consistent walkers of recent years and last year’s winner, Ryta Turava. The Belorussian is the current European champion and winner of the 2006 World Cup, as well as the World Championship silver medalist in 2005, and two-time overall winner of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge. Her form, however, is something of an enigma, as she has yet to finish a race this year – in the recent World Cup, her only competition so far in 2008, she withdrew during the race.
Olympic champion Athanasia Tsoumeleka of Greece has progressed well since coming back from maternity leave last year and has already placed well twice on the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in 2008: fourth place in Rio Maior and second in Sesto San Giovanni. Thus she must be once again be reckoned with as a serious force.
Several other women, however, may be just as strong or stronger on current form. Prominent among them is Vera Santos of Portugal, coming to Krakow fresh off the best race of her career. In the World Cup in Cheboksary, the 26-year old finished third, beating her personal best by well over two minutes.
The Olympic bronze medalist Jane Saville of Australia, seventh in Cheboksary, is also among the favourites of the race, as is the Portuguese Susana Feitor, bronze medalist in the 2005 World Championships and second in Rio Maior and tenth in Cheboksary this year.
Another top ten finisher from the recent World Cup coming to Krakow is Elena Ginko of Belarus, whose another claim to fame is setting a world best for 50 kilometres. One more star in the field is Claudia Stef of Romania, a top 8 finisher in the last three World Championships.
Pavel Jackowski for the IAAF