The sun shone brightly through the clouds at the beginning of the first day of the Chinese leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, held in Beijing this year after previous stints in Shenzhen, Yangzhou and Cixi. This is the Olympic test event for race-walking and the Chinese Olympic Trials, a combination that brought over 25,000 fans into Beijing’s National Stadium, known here as “niaochao,” the “Bird’s Nest,” the spectacular crown jewel of the 2008 Olympics.
The first day of competition saw the men’s and women’s 20km events. As expected, the Chinese women dominated their event, sweeping the medals; but the men’s event was a three-continent fight to the finish, with Australia, China and Mexico all picking up medals on their way to the Beijing Olympics.
Unveiling of Olympic stadium
The fans crowded into the lower tier of the stadium were there as much to see the unveiling of the stadium as to cheer on the local favourites. The upper deck, not being used for spectator seating for this event, was awash in red seats, lending a glow to the interior of a stadium that is sure to see many stunning performances come August.
“As Beijing natives, coming to see the Bird’s Nest is a must,” said Hou Shuyin, a woman in her 60’s who came to the races today with friend Kang Suying. In classic Beijing vernacular, Kang pronounced the stadium “spectacular.”
Spectacular, too, were the races. The men’s race started at 9:00 a.m. local time with the walkers taking three and a half laps inside the stadium. Two Chinese walkers took the opportunity to lead the race in front of the home crowd: Area record holder Zhu Hongjun (1:17:41, 2005) and Han Yucheng, bronze medallist at the 2006 World Race Walking Cup in La Coruña, both favourites. They relinquished the lead soon after exiting the stadium for the nine laps around the Olympic Green.
Outside the stadium, visibility was tough in the conditions, which by that point had turned hazy and humid. The lead pack remained fairly constant until China’s Wang Hao broke away around the 15km mark, with Australian Jared Tallent in stride. They quickly out-paced the other competitors, and it was a two-man race. Looking strong, Tallent soon tested Wang and stretched a lead.
As the camera followed Australian Jared Tallent through the tunnel and back into the stadium for the final 100m, China's Wang Hao was literally no longer in the picture. Tallent had time to wave to the crowd as he surged across the line at 1:20:11, only 30 seconds slower than the personal best of 1:19:41 he set in Australia in February.
Though Wang never threatened the gold medallist in the final minutes, he finished 14 seconds back with his personal best of 1:20:25. Bronze medallist Eder Sanchez of Mexico crossed the finish line in 1:20:57. China’s pre race favourites did not fare especially well in the end; Zhu Hongjun was disqualified and Han Yucheng simply faded, finishing in 6th place, 1:35 back from the leaders with a time of 1:21:46.
After the race, Tallent told the media that he felt great. “It looks very hazy but the pollution is no problem at all,” he said. “The main factor in August is going to be the heat and humidity, so got to get ready for that.”
In fact the race condition that troubled competitors the most was not the pollution, but the hardness of the course, which was made of concrete instead of asphalt. Australia’s Luke Adams felt the impact aggravated injuries, and dropped out of the race as a precaution around the 4km mark.
Chinese sweep in women’s events
Considerably clearer skies greeted the second race of the day, the women's 20km event. As expected, the Chinese race walkers dominated the event, but in a much closer contest than on the men’s side. The racers fanned out into almost a single-file at the race’s start, with China’s Bo Yanmin leading by 25 metres as she entered the tunnel. Sun Limin assumed the lead, grimacing as she set the pace. Fatigued, her form failed her as she was disqualified around the 40-minute mark of the race.
Fatigue also affected two-time World University Games champ Jiang Qiuyan, a pre race favourite here. Her right hamstring flared up because of the impact on the Olympic Green’s concrete course, she said after the race. In the end she could only manage seventh place.
With less than 2 kilometres remaining, the outcome was still wide open with four walkers fighting for the medals. The pack consisted of 2006 Asian Games gold medallist Liu Hong, Yang Yawei, Yang Shi, and Yang Mingxia. Yang Yawei challenged Liu to a photo finish, with both walkers clocking 1:29:33. Liu Hong won that battle, with Yang taking silver. Shi Yang placed third with her 1:29:39 mark, completing a Chinese sweep to end the historic first day of competition at the Bird’s Nest.
Mary Nicole Nazzaro for the IAAF, with Caitlin Rhodes in Beijing
1 Tallent Jared Australia 1:20:11
2 Wang Hao Mongolia 1:20:25 0:14
3 Sanchez Eder Mexico 1:20:57 0:46
4 Chu Yafei Mongolia 1:21:04 0:53
5 Dong Jimin Jiangsu 1:21:17 1:06
6 Han Yucheng Liaoning 1:21:46 1:35
7 Ghoula Hatem Tunisia 1:21:58 1:47
8 Wei Yang Heilongjiang 1:22:20 2:09
9 Cui Zhide People's Liberation Army 1:22:41 2:30
10 Kim Hyunsub Korea 1:23:06 2:55
1 Liu Hong Guangdong 1:29:33
2 Yang Yawei Chongqing 1:29:33
3 Shi Yang Chongqing 1:29:39 0:06
4 Yang Mingxia Shaanxi 1:29:42 0:09
5 Shi Na Shandong 1:30:48 1:15
6 Fuchise Masumi Japan 1:31:11 1:38
7 Jiang Qiuyan Shaanxi 1:31:32 1:59
8 Kawasaki Mayumi Japan 1:32:47 3:14
9 Jiang Jing Jiangsu 1:32:53 3:20
10 Zhou Kang People's Liberation Army 1:34:17 4:44