It’s the longest race on the World Championships programme. It’s also the one that people generally tend to know least about, but recent history suggests a Russian man should win.
‘It’ is the men’s 50km Race Walk, a race against the distance, against the demands of holding technique and form for almost four hours in hot, summer conditions and, finally, against the other competitors.
Since a little blip in 2007-08 when, successively, Australia’s Nathan Deakes and Alex Schwazer of Italy – who was followed by another Australian, Jared Tallent – won gold medals at the global championships, Russia has dominated the event.
Sergey Kirdyapkin won in Berlin in 2009 and took the big prize in London last year. Another Sergey, Bakulin this time, led in a Russian one-two in Daegu 2011, beating team-mate and World record-holder Denis Nizhegorodov for the gold medal.
With no World Cup this year and limited races anywhere over the distance, it is difficult to draw a line on the form for Moscow. Yohann Diniz of France, a perennial contender at this event but not yet a medallist, leads the world list with his 3:41:07 at the European Race Walking Cup in the Slovakian spa town of Dudince in May.
Just to confuse matters, next place on the list with an almost-identical 3:41:09 is Erick Barrondo of Guatemala. Guess where Barrondo did his time. Yes, in Dudince, two months earlier. Second, almost eight minutes behind, was Diniz.
Perhaps the best line to take, then, is to look at the past few championships. That puts both Diniz and Barrondo in the frame, provided they can satisfy the judges.
Diniz led past half-way in Daegu, only to be disqualified soon afterwards. Barrondo led early before suffering a similar fate in the Olympic race in London last year.
Tallent has been a medallist in Beijing, Daegu and London without taking the biggest prize – yet. He faces a huge task to do that in Moscow, with his toughest rivals competing at home, but he seems likely to be there when the medals are decided.
He has not had to walk a 50km this year and was exempt from the Australian trial last December, but his form is good. Tallent’s preparation was topped off with a win at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge 20km in La Coruna.
His main Russian rival, too, comes in with the advantage of not having had to knock himself out just to make the team. Kirdyapkin was pre-selected on the basis of his Olympic title. Daegu champion Bakulin will forego his wildcard entry due to injury, but the rest of the Russian team includes European Cup minor medallists Mikhail Ryzhov and Ivan Noskov.
Whether they work together as a team or individually, the Russians will have a huge say in the medals.
China and Japan have been making advances in the 50km, too, culminating in Si Tianfeng’s bronze medal for China in London last year. Si finished third in Shenyang earlier this year behind Wu Qianlong and Li Jiangbo, so clearly China will have a strong trio in Moscow.
Japan’s Takayuki Tanii sits fourth on the world list with 3:44:25 and he will be joined in Moscow by Koichi Morioka, who has a personal best of 3:43:14, and Hirooki Arai (3:47:08).
It is a field with a very international look to it, but one that is likely to be led home by a familiar face. Or, at the least, a familiar team vest.
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Len Johnson for the IAAF