Olympic 50km race walk silver medallist Denis Nizhegorodov may be only 24, but he is already viewed by many in Russia’s race-walking community as the favourite for the 2008 Olympic Games.
“I would not have been capable of getting up"
Nizhegorodov, who comes from the little out-of-the-way settlement of Aleksandrovka in the Mordovian Republic, turned out to be one of the heroes of the Athens Olympics. The dramatic finish in the 50km race in which he staggered exhausted and dehydrated towards the stadium first made the public tremble at his suffering and then applaud his courage.
For the last 1.5 km of the longest distance in the whole athletics programme he was struggling, not only with Robert Korzeniowski but with the heat as well. Exhausted and practically out of his mind, he collided with the barriers on the course and nearly fell down.
“If I had fallen,” Nizhegorodov admitted, “I would not have been capable of getting up. So I grabbed all the consciousness I had left and managed to go on.”
As soon as he crossed the finish, the inevitable fall came, and his relatives back home in Russia watching on TV were convinced he had died.
He had felt that he was on the verge of dying eight kilometres before the finishing line, the 35-degree heat and the 80 percent humidity taking a heavy toll on a man who was more used to cold weather.
“It (the race in Athens) was like being in a steam bath, I’ve never experienced such a feeling. And I do hope I never will again.”
Maybe the struggle with Korzeniowski, who was rushing relentlessly to his fourth Olympic victory, was too much of a good thing for Nizhegorodov. He tried his utmost to beat the Pole and due to those efforts the duo left a crowd of opponents far behind.
So what was in his mind just prior to the finishing line? Only the words of his coach which had been shouted to him 2km from the finish: “Try it, be patient, you’ll do it!”
“The next Olympics are yours”
Despite unbearable pain in every part of his body, Nizhegorodov managed to get up off the track after the finish, and was first approached by the gold medallist ‘Robert the Great’ whose congratulations couldn’t have been clearer: “The next Olympics are yours.”
But it is difficult to say what will happen in 2008 in the Chinese capital. Yes, in July of 2008 Nizhegorodov will be only 28 years old. That’s the flourishing age for athletes contesting the 50km distance. In Athens he was the youngest of those who started at the longest distance in athletics. It was only his fourth performance at 50km, and of the other three races all were 'big time' - twice he had won the Russian championships, and he had placed fifth at the Paris 2003 Worlds.
Nizhegorodov only started race walking six years ago. Originally he was coached by his father, a teacher of physical culture in the village school, who was sure that his son would be an excellent runner. Gennadiy Ivanovich Nezhegorodov was a runner himself and even won a Mordovian Republique title. But still it was not by chance that his son switched to race walking, as another villager, Yevgeniy Maskinskov had won the Olympic 50km silver medal in 1956 in Melbourne.
Athens bronze too
In Athens, Russia celebrated a double success, as the bronze medal was won by Aleksey Voyevodin.
Voyevodin started race walking only at the age of 20 in 1990 and along with Nizhegorodov does not like 20km. It is too short a distance for them both. May be the reason is that they both lack speed but have got the fantastic endurance that is an absolute must at 50km.
Voyevodin is now firmly established in the world race-walking elite. He was the bronze medal winner at the Russian winter championships at 35km in 1995. But then came a period of total disappointment, after which he changed coaches. Since that time he has twice won the IAAF Race Walking World Cup and was fourth at the 2003 World Championships.
20 year-old former world junior champion Vladimir Kanaykin has also been performing well recently over 35km. At the recent Russian national championships (12/13 March) his 2:33:17, was the fastest ever time for this odd distance. Then there is another star, Vladimir Porvatkin, also 20, who won the 20km at the same championships with a very promising result – 1:18:06 – which is the 9th best in the history.
Nickolai Dolgopolov and Rostislav Orlov for the IAAF