Any doubts that Francisco Javier Fernandez was a spent global force was laid to rest in Cheboksary on Saturday afternoon (10 May) at the 23rd IAAF World Race Walking Cup.
After faltering at the World Championships in Osaka last year, the Spaniard appropriately took the bull by the horns to reclaim the 20km crown he won in La Coruna, Spain, two years ago.
But this win was a lot harder than 2006.
With only a kilometre left it was still a two-man race with Valeriy Borchin contesting the $30,000 first prize. Just before that, the Russian had put in a desperate spurt to shake off his shadow, only to find Fernandez had a shot left in his locker.
The five metres carved out by Borchin slowly became four, three, and then nothing, as the Spaniard drew alongside.
When Fernandez made his bolt for home, the pain on the Russian’s face betrayed the race’s outcome. The eventual winner controlled the final few hundred metres, even allowing himself the luxury of strolling across the finish line for the last five steps for a course and a World Cup record of 78:15.
An exhausted Borchin followed, and Eder Sanchez was duly rewarded by staying with the early pace after the Mexican had dug in when the pace shot up after half-way.
Ilya Markov may have missed the IAAF press conference the day before, but the former World champion showed no signs of missing out on a Russian team medal even at age 35.
The least known of the Russian team, Andrey Krivov, was a surprise fifth after leading the race for a kilometre just after half-way.
Australia were hoping for another team medal to go with the silver they won in La Coruna, and achieved their wish when a fast-finishing Luke Adams was seventh with Jared Tallent, 10th, having lost touch with the lead group around 13k.
Erik Tysse was the model of consistency in sixth. The Norwegian rarely disappoints, and his umpteenth top-ten finish in a major race belied the effort his buckling knees displayed as he crossed the line.
With Fernandez’s gold safely in the bag, Juan Molina (8th) and Benjamin Sanchez (13th) brought the winner a team silver to further brighten up the day.
Robert Heffernan became the first Irishman to sweep inside 80:00, and remark his own national rewrite his own national record with 79:22, a fitting reward for a country with less than three million inhabitants.
It offers hope when the smaller nations can also compete alongside those with populations of Russia’s 200 million-plus.
In that respect, lone Tunisian Hatem Ghoula once again kept the flag flying for his country when the Osaka bronze medallist got 11th, with Ecuador’s Roland Saquipay 46 seconds back forced into the limelight normally reserved for Jefferson Perez – ruled out through a lack of training.
It was fitting that a large portion of Cheboksary’s population showed up for a fabulous race, and cheered everyone regardless of the colour of their vest, reminding everybody why the Russian city had been granted the rights to the World Cup in the first place.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF