Olga Kaniskina on the way to a dominating 20Km victory in Barcelona (Getty Images) © Copyright
The depth in the men’s Marathon is getting deeper and deeper. Back in the 1990s a sub-2:10 result meant a place in the world elite; today, these times aren’t even enough to enter the world top-100.
By the end of December, 124 athletes covered the distance in under 2:10. In 2009 there were 103 runners under that barrier, 86 in 2008 and only 70 in 2007, so the growth in the event has been phenomenal lately. One fair point in this event is that thanks for this rise in the standard goes to two countries. In 2010 the top 18 in this event come only from Kenya (10) and Ethiopia (8). The top four this season are Kenyans with the fastest marathon in 2010 being the Rotterdam race. Patrick Makau won with a world leading 2:04:48 there just edging Geoffrey Mutai who clocked 2:04:55. Two-time World Half Marathon championships silver medallist Makau later went on to win in another fast 2:05:08 capping a fine season for the 25-year-old.
Mutai, trailing by just seven seconds in Rotterdam, was second in Berlin too, but now much closer losing by a mere two seconds to finish in 2:05:10. Wilson Kiprotich was the third runner in 2010 to break 2:05 winning in a personal best 2:04:57 in Frankfurt in October. The talk of the season was Ethiopian World record holder (2:03:59 in 2008) Haile Gebrselassie calling it a day following an unfinished New York Marathon in November. But Gebrselassie, who failed another bid at the World record winning in a season’s best 2:06:09 in Dubai in January, quickly reconsidered his emotionally charged decision and decided to continue his career.
Kenya dominates this event with well more than half of the athletes in world top 100 with a huge 59 entries. Ethiopia is a clear second with 28 with Morocco third place with just five.
20Km Race Walk –
It was not a big year for men’s Race Walking, not in terms of results or competition. There were many factors, first of all the World Cup at high altitude didn’t attract too many of the world’s top walkers and also with the Asian Games in sight for top Asians in late November, they weren’t looking to be in top form early.
For the 20Km Race Walk the season was a very low key one looking at the results. Just four walkers made it under 1:20 this season; there were 12 in 2009, 19 in 2008, 12 in 2007, 17 in 2006, a massive 28 in 2005, 12 in 2004 and 13 in 2003. In fact the last time there were less walkers under 1:20 in road walking was way back in 1994 when just three made this limit.
The world leader in this event was 50Km specialist Italian Alex Schwazer who recorded a fast 1:18:24 national record in Lugano in March. The reigning 50km Olympic champion later won in Sesto San Giovanni and finished second at the European Championships in Barcelona.
It seems the Russian are endless with their new walking stars and 2010 was no exception. Just 20 years old, Stanislav Yemeyanov came to the fore in 2010, not unknown, but just as a junior star. Yemelyanov has a perfect string of junior performances having won the World Youth Championships in 2007, World Junior Championships in 2008, European Junior Championships and European Cup in 2009. The youngster entered the 2010 season having not walked a 20km competition ending up as the European Champion in just his third career race over this distance. A 1:19:43 personal best start at the Russian Winter Championships in February followed by another win (1:20:49) at the National Championships in June and then a clear victory in Barcelona (1:20:10) should mean great things for this athlete in the future.
2009 World silver medallist Wang Hao obviously only thought about winning the Asian Games in Guangzhou, which he did in style. A win at the World Cup in Chihuahua was a good appetizer for the Chinese, who then recorded a season’s best 1:20:50 to win the 2010 Asian Games.
China can expect great things from other young walkers too. Just 17-year-old Wang Zhen set a personal best 1:20:42 in Rio Maior and later on went to win the IAAF Race Walking Challenge final over 10Km in Beijing in 37:44, an Asian record and pending World junior record.
As usual China tops this event with 18 athletes in the world top 100. Russia had nine for second place with Japan and Poland tied for third with eight each.
50Km Race Walk -
Without the European Championships race in Barcelona, the men’s 50km world list would have been a very low key one, too. Last season the 10th result was below 3:42; this season only Yohann Diniz (FRA) walked under this limit winning in 3:40:37 in Barcelona. Diniz came back nicely to the top after a couple of disappointing performances at the Beijing Olympics and the Berlin World Championships. He won the European title in 2006 and took World champs silver in 2007. In Barcelona Diniz successfully defended his European title in the only race of the season, grabbing the world leader as well.
Slovakian Matej Toth was a surprise winner in Chihuahua at the World Cup with a 3:53:30 personal best. Pole Grzegorz Sudol, who was fourth at the 2009 World Champs, moved up to second place in Barcelona with a 3:42:24 personal best. 24-year-old Russian Sergey Bakulin completed his move from the 20Km to the 50Km distance by grabbing the European bronze medal in his first major championships race in this event with a 3:43:26 personal best.
Here too Chinese athletes concentrated on the Asian Games. Si Tianfeng was fourth at the World Cup before winning in Guangzhou at the Asian Games in 3:47:04 season’s best.
China was the best country with 21 athletes in the world top 100. Poland had nine for second place and Japan third with seven.
2010 will be rememered as the year that Ethiopia overwhelmed this event. There have been since the 1990's a number of excellent female Ethiopian Marathon runners – Fatuma Roba, Gete Wami and Berhane Adere among others – but they have been brilliant individuals and not part of something that it any way merited an example of "a wave". But now...
Because - even though the very acute observer might have noticed the Ethiopian presence in the Marathon world lists showing an upward trend over the past decade - there was nothing really preparing us for the "tsunami" of 2010. The number of Ethiopian sub-2:26 runners had from 2000 to 2009 been 1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 1 – 3 – 2 – 6 – 8 before now exploding to 18 (!) as of early December!
Actually Ethiopia this year provides over half of the 35 sub-2:26 marathon runners in the World. The distribution looks like this: Ethiopia 18, Kenya 6, Russia 3, Japan and China 2, France, Sweden, New Zealand and Portugal 1!
The age pattern also signals that this is no temporary phenomenon isolated to the year 2010: The 18 Ethiopians average 24 years while the 17 non-Ethiopians average 30 years! Of course in long distance running you can be competitive even into your 40's but the numbers still tell us that the Ethiopians are not likely to disappear from the scene before the others.
Of the old "super powers" of female Marathon running Japan seems to be struggling to find the heirs to the Noguchis, Takahashis, Tosas and Shibuis of the previous generation, i.e. runners capable of competing for podium positions in the international championships and/or in the prestigious city Marathons around the world.
Kenya is doing slightly better even though the current group is not yet on par with runners like Catherine Ndereba, Tegla Loroupe or Margaret Okayo. Perhaps the surprise winner of this year's New York City Marathon Edna Kiplagat or the Frankfurt winner Caroline Kilel could fill that gap in the next years?
Currently Russia seems better equipped at the very top thanks to two recently transferred track running specialists: Lidiya Shobukhova and Inga Abitova. Especially so Shobukhova who has compiled an almost perfect record in her four marathons so far: 3rd in 2:24 in London and 1st in 2:25 in Chicago last year and this year winning both those races in 2:22 and 2:20 respectively!
Shobukhova's special talent is the truly amazing ability to make good use of her superior speed (former World Indoor record at 3000m!) even after having run 40 kilometres in her Marathons. Normally the closing stages of a Marathon is about not slowing down too much but for Shobukhova it is really about speeding up! Having that kind of ability must also be a very strong, psychological weapon in any Marathon "war".
But when speculating about the outcome in upcoming championships – Daegu 2011 and London 2012 – one should not just look at times achieved or merits in the big city races. There are also runners that seem to thrive especially on the championship setting, one typical male example was Eric Wainaina of Kenya who had taken two Olympic medals (bronze in 1996, silver in 2000) before he ran his first – and only – sub-2:10 Marathon!
A current female specialist is Zhou Chunxiu. Even though she indeed has a win in London 2007 on her CV she seems to have moved her focus more and more towards championship honours rather than on times or prize money in a manner reminiscent of Stefano Baldini. Since 2005 Zhou has finished 5-2-4 in World Championships, 3 in Olympics and 1-1 in Asian Games without her times looking "special" in any way (all six between 2:24 and 2:30).
20Km Race Walk -
For some reason it seems that the world of women's race walking is well on its way to shrinking into just one nation - Russia. It has always been the No. 1 nation in the discipline but there have also always been individuals from other nations mixing it at the top with the Russians. But in recent years the Russian dominance has become more and more marked.
At the European Championships Russia swept the medals with Olga Kaniskina adding another gold medal to her already very impressive collection. Since her silver four years ago in the Europeans in Göteborg she has won everything: Worlds 2007, Olympics 2008, Worlds 2009 and now Europeans 2010 – and she is still only 25 years old.
However, Barcelona silver medallist Anisya Kirdyapkina is four years younger so she is actually in the exactly the same position now as Kaniskina was in 2006. Bronze medallist Vera Sokolova at 23 also most likely is just in the up-phase of her career. To that picture it should be added that there was a Russian 1-2 in the 10,000m Race Walk at the World Juniors in Moncton. So everything points to the Russian grip upon this event not weakening in the foreseeable future.
In Europe the position as main opponent to Russia has moved from Italy, who has faded noticeably in recent years – the leading Italian was not in top-30 on the World List! - to Portugal, whose three entrants all finished in the top-9 at the European Championships. But it should be noted that even in Europe the interest in women's race walking appears to be on the wane. Only 13 nations (out of 50!) had athletes competing in Barcelona and besides Russia and Portugal just Spain and Lithuania had more than one finisher.
Outside of Europe the only nations having some kind of depth in the event is China and Japan although not even they currently have anyone showing the capacity to really challenge for the medal positions. Just as in long distance running the current generation of athletes from these nations is not as strong as their predecessors were some ten years ago.
- Olga Kaniskina on the way to a dominating 20Km victory in Barcelona (Getty Images) © Copyright
- 2010 Race Walking Challenge Final men's podium (l to r) - runner-up Chu Yafei (CHN), race winner Zhen Wang (CHN), and Giorgio Rubino (ITA) (organisers) © Copyright
- 2010 Race Walking Challenge Final women's podium: runner-up Liu Hong (CHN), race winner Tatyana Sibileva (RUS), and Melanie Seeger (GER) (organisers) © Copyright
- Matej Toth can hardly believe he has become the World 50km race walk Cup winner in Chihuahua (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Russian 20Km Race Walk podium sweep in Barcelona: silver medallist Anisya Kirdyapkina, winner Olga Kaniskina and Vera Sokolova, the bronze medallist (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Stanislav Emelyanov cruising towards the European 20Km Race Walk title in Barcelona (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Maria Vasco of Spain celebrates winning her first World Race Walking Cup gold medal in Chihuahua (Getty Images) © Copyright
- The women's 10,000m race walk in Moncton (Getty Images) © Copyright