The really big winner at the 18th Race Walking Grand Prix in Dublin, Ireland, on Sunday (26) was Sandro Damilano – and he never raced a step.
The Italian coach is known as the Jose Mourinho of heel-and-toe and for a very good reason. The Special One in this sport had two winners and a third in races that count towards the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, and delightedly gave all three a high five as they crossed the line in Phoenix Park. But there again he’s used to it.
It is 31 years since he coached his brother Maurizio to gold in the Moscow Olympic 20km – and since then he’s had 44 others who have worn medals at major championships.
China was never known for letting foreigners interfere with its athletes – but the country of a billion people know a good thing when they see it. For the last year, Damilano has looked after both Zhen Wang and Liu Hong, and the result?
For Zhen it was a World junior record 37:44 for 10km in last year’s Challenge final, and the two fastest times in the world at 20km so far this year.
The critical factor has been the venues. Not just at home in Taicang back in April, but also in Lugano and here in Ireland to boast a real challenge for gold at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu two months hence.
Damilano insisted this race was nothing more than a ‘hard test’ for his charges, but it was too hard for the chasers once Zhen lit the afterburners after 17km.
Behind him, there was a real scrap for second, and a terrific finish for Hassanine Sbei.
The Tunisian is treading in the footsteps of countryman Hatem Ghoula – himself a previous IAAF World Championship bronze medallist. Sbei just missed out on a PB by four seconds, but there again his previous mark was only notched in April.
Damilano also got third with Giorgio Rubino’s restoration following a troubled year fighting injury – and a four-minute improvement on his previous 20km this year.
Nine of the top 10 logged IAAF World Championship qualifying times with a couple of new faces on the block.
Guatemala has not had much to shout about since Julio Rene Martinez retired. But in Erick Barrondo, it looks as if they might have one to match the previous world record holder’s achievements. Barrondo came charging home after Rubino, and probably has a slice of cake left over from his 20th birthday last month to celebrate eating a massive four minutes off his PB.
India too had a reason to think the trip to Dublin was worthwhile. Gurmeet Singh made a real breakthrough to get on the plane to Daegu by getting under the 20k ‘A’ standard with time to spare for ninth place.
Damilano was also waiting for Liu Hong as she coasted to victory in the women’s 20km.
The Chinese IAAF World Championships bronze medallist from Berlin was on her own after the first pair of laps, but the Irish woman who beat her back then was content to come through from fifth at half-way to take another second.
Olive Loughnane reckons she’s in decent shape again.
She added: “I’m feeling full of confidence, and I plan to go close to what I did at the last World Championships – or very close.”
Guatemala’s second success of the day came in the form of Jamy Franco. Like team-mate Barrondo, she also lopped nearly four minutes off her best for third – as well as making the ‘A’ cut for Daegu – and she’s still only 19.
Jared Tallent set off like he was hoping to catch an early plane home in the men’s 50km – and soon built up a lead that was an amazing kilometre ahead of second.
As the Aussie was turning at one end of the 2k loop – the rest were turning at the other end of the scenic Phoenix Park course. The massive lead was still only around 3:50:00 pace and well within the compass of the Olympic silver medallist with a best inside 3:39:00.
But just as the 26-year-old suffered on his last long-distance outing at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua more than a year ago – stomach cramps doubled him up again, only this time a lot earlier – and he was on the side of the road watching the rest at 25km.
Italy’s Diego Cafanga has shivered in the shadow of Alex Schwazer for most of his career. But with his more famous adversary pulling out midweek – Cafanga was willing to turn up the heat and tread the path vacated by Tallent.
Cafanga too built up a race-winning lead projected for around four hours – but at 46k the last of his energy deserted him; his knees went and the judges almost mercifully ended his morning with a disqualification.
Cue a man who started cautiously and reaped the benefits – and not a moment too soon for Antti Kempas.
The Finn has been on the end of injury after injury with surgery punctuating a tough last two years. The 30-year-old wondered if he would ever get back to the relatively heady heights of 11th in the IAAF World Championships as he did in 2007.
But this time Kempas went to the front after Cafanga’s demise and there was nothing the rest of a depleted field could do about it.
The reward was a ‘B’ category qualification for Daegu – and a time only seven minutes outside his best.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF
1 Antti Kempas (Finland) 4:02:37
2 Basanta Bahadur Rana (India) 4:10:51
3 Eddy Roze (France) 4:14:12
4 Rodrigo Moreno (Colombia) 4:15:05
5 Chandan Singh (India) 4:25:20
6 Anibal Paau (Guatemala) 4:29:03
7 Dan King (Great Britain) 4:32:38
1 Zhen Wang (China) 1:19:46
2 Hassanine Sbei (Tunisia) 1:20:23
3 Giorgio Rubino (Italy) 1:20:44
4 Erick Barrondo (Guatemala) 1:20:58
5 Ho Wang (China) 1:21:03
6 Miguel Angel Lopez (Spain) 1:21:41
7 Nazar Kovalenko (Ukraine) 1:21:48
8 Luis Fernando Lopez (Colombia) 1:21:53
9 Gurmeet Singh (India) 1:22:05
10 Kevin Campion (France) 1:22:48
1 Liu Hong (China) 1:29:44
2 Olive Loughnane (Ireland) 1:31:55
3 Jamy Franco (Guatamala) 1:32:48
4 Agnieszka Szwarnog (Poland) 1:33:50
5 He Qin (China) 1:34:48
6 Clarie Tallent (Australia) 1:35:54
7 Lorena Luaces (Spain) 1:36:26
8 Christine Guinaudeau (France) 1:36:32
9 Lu Xiuzhi (China) 1:38:15
10 Ainho Pinedo Gonzalez (Spain) 1:38:27