28 SEP 2007 General News Saransk, Russia

Chegin – the centre of Russian Race Walking success

Centre for Olympic Preparation in Saransk, Russia, the only performance centre in the world dedicated to Race Walking (Paul Warburton)Centre for Olympic Preparation in Saransk, Russia, the only performance centre in the world dedicated to Race Walking (Paul Warburton) © Copyright

Victor Chegin’s wife isn’t that fond of race walking.

It’s nothing against the sport as such, it’s just that she doesn’t get to see much of her high-profile husband when there is a major athletics championship to prepare for. And as that’s most of the time, there has to be a high level of tolerance between the two.

Chegin is the head coach at the Centre for Olympic Preparation in Saransk Russia – the only performance centre in the world dedicated to walking.

The 45-year-old former athlete jokes about being the ‘big boss’, but he’s responsible for Russia’s finest at the event. And as that meant eight out of the 11 walkers at last month’s World Championships in Osaka are under his wing, it’s easy to imagine the demands made on the man who runs the centre near a forest a couple of kilometres outside Saransk.

The result of 20 years of nurturing his beloved project has produced an athletics facility as good, if not better, than anything comparable in the world.

Today he was a proud observer as the Head of the Russian Athletics Federation opened up a special 330 metre all-weather track at the centre.

Why the odd distance?

Because, according to Chegin, it’s easy then to calculate three laps to the kilometre required in training sessions from his charges.

If it seems odd it’s taken a while to get a track at the facility, it’s because a short drive away in a forest clearing, must be the only purpose-built walking course in the world.

A path has been tarmaced to walking perfection to produce a 3.2k loop, marked every 100 yards and cleaned and cleared every morning by a special machine.

The facility is reserved only for the centre’s walkers and invited guests, and this morning there were coaches scattered around the loop checking the progress of those competing in Saturday’s IAAF Race Waking Challenge.

It’s not hard to see why Russian women filled two out three podium sports in Osaka. Both Olga Kaniskina and Tatiana Shemyakina were being put through their paces along with three World champions, a World record holder and a host of others loping up and down in 1k splits of 4:00 minutes.

Starting later than the others was Irina Stankina, who was the youngest ever IAAF World Champion when she triumphed in Gothenburg 12 years ago.

According to Chegin, Stankina’s 1995 success somewhat appropriately paved the way for even more attention to the fabulous Saransk set-up – and therefore improved funding.

The current annual budget is around $2 million dollars with one aim in mind – walking success for Russia.

The weights room is fixed up to improve walking strength: the sauna and plunge pool are augmented by a massage and physio centre manned by eight staff including physiotherapists, doctors and nurses.

It was worth noting they all leaped to attention when Chegin led the way into the suite, as did the cafeteria staff at the  ‘Victory Restaurant’ which feeds everyone. Even the cleaners seem in awe of the man, who is surprised to learn the rest of the walking world sometimes has to struggle to make their voice heard.

He said: “Race walking is the most popular sport in Saransk. Maybe, it’s because we have been successful on the world stage. If our walkers train in a public place, they are applauded all the time.”

Potential champions are first spotted at school, and eventually get invited to the centre where the only thing they have to do is listen to the coach.

If they fail, he says, it’s his fault.

Olga Chegin probably wishes they all would, so her husband could be relieved of his post and spend more time with him.

It seems hardly unlikely. The coach has no intention of giving up the job he claims is as rewarding as anything else he has done in his life.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF