The Chinese leg of IAAF Race Walking Challenge which last year was held in Cixi, Zhejiang province, moves this year to Yangzhou in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, with competition taking place this Saturday (22).
Yangzhou is not hosting its first major walking meeting, as this city of some 4.5 million inhabitants hosted of the National Race Walking Championships in 2003.
Last year the Cixi meeting produced some of the best ever clockings in men's 20km history. Three athletes went sub 1:18, the best in one competition, and there are only a total of nine athletes under this limit all-time.
Nathan Deakes (AUS) won last year’s close contest with an Oceanian record of 1:17:33, and was followed home by Zhu Hongjun (CHN) who set an Asian record of 1:17:41.
This year Deakes, the Olympic bronze medallist is again entered in the competition and he is naturally one of the top favourites, last month having won a double in the Commonwealth Games over 20km / 50km. Zhu Hongjun, and fellow Chinese Cui Zhide, who took the third place last year in Cixi in 1:17:53 are also entered.
But this year there is another ‘foreign’ favourite in the guise of the overall 2005 Race walking Challenge winner Francisco Javier Fernández of Spain. Now coached by the great Robert Korzeniowski, Fernández is a former World record holder for 20km (1:17:22 in Turku 2002), and is the reigning European champion and silver medallist at both Athens Olympics 2004 and Helsinki World Championships 2005.
Other non-Chinese favourites include Russians Ilya Markov and Aleksandr Yargunkin and Australian Luke Adams.
Of course the host country has easily the strongest team and in addition to the two top finishers last year they are fielding nine athletes with personal bests under 1:20. These include only 16-year-old Li Gaobo, who set the Asian junior record of 1:18:07 last year in Cixi just missing Viktor Burayev's (RUS) fastest ever junior clocking of 1:18:06 by one second. Li went on to record a historic win in the 10th Chinese National Games in last October with another fast time of 1:18:22.
Other top Chinese names include Xing Shucai, who was the fourth placer in the 2004 Athens Olympics 50km and is the Asian 50km record holder (3:36:06), Yu Chaohong, who us one of the fastest ever 50km walkers at 3:36:20, as well as Han Yucheng, Liu Yunfeng, Lu Ronghua, Fang Pengfei and Bai Xuejin.
Also entered is the world leading athlete over the 50km distance in 2006. Just 18-years-old, Zhao Jianguo clocked the fastest ever time by a junior when winning the Asian 50km Championships in Wajima, Japan, last weekend clocking 3:41:10.
In the women's race the Chinese grabbed the top eight places in last year's 20km competition in Cixi. The top three Chinese from that race return for this year's competition as well - Jiang Jing, Yang Yawei and Jiang Qiuyan - but such is the strength in depth in Chinese women’s race walking, there is also 19-year-old Bai Yanmin to consider, who was the National Games winner from 2005.
Notably, two of the top Chinese walkers of the past few years, 2000 Olympic gold medallist Wang Liping and Tang Yinghua, who took the fourth place in Cixi last year with a personal best of 1:28:07, have not been entered, and it is most probable that they have ended their careers.
The top foreigners in the women’s 20km include Russian Natalya Shivireva, Australians Cheryl Webb and Claire Woods, and Belarussians Snezhana Yurchenko and Elena Ginko.
Mirko Jalava for the IAAF