03 MAY 2004 General News Naumburg

Why is Russia such a strong race walking nation?

Yelena Nikolayeva (RUS) in action in Naumburg (Getty Images)Yelena Nikolayeva (RUS) in action in Naumburg (Getty Images) © Copyright

The dual World Cup wins here in Naumburg by Vera Sokolova and Yelena Nikolayeva in the women's senior and junior walks was not only a great achievement for Russian athletics but also a little known region in the Eastern part the country just west of the Urals.

The Chuvash Republic has become a hotbed of race walking following the successes of Yelena Nikolayeva (she won the 1996 Olympic 20km walk) Olimpiada Ivanova and Vladimir Andreyev. Crucially for the republic's continued success in the event, race walking has heavyweight support politically.

In front of a Chuvash TV crew immediately after the medal ceremony for the senior 20km walk in Naumburg, Yelena had the honour of receiving a call on her mobile phone from the President of the Chuvash Republic Nikolai Fyodorov - himself a famous sportsman in his time.

The Capital city of the small republic Cheboksary hosted the 2003 European Cup of Race Walking with crowds of 40 000 lining the course. With the massive interest in the city it's not surprising that it has been chosen as the next but one host city for the IAAF World Race Walking Cup.

La Coruna is to host the 2006 event.

"We plan to make the World Cup in Cheboksary even better than the European Cup," said Dr. Vyacheslav Krasnov - the Deputy Head of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Chuvash Republic, also the Sports Minster and, incidentally, a star race walker in his day. He raced in the annual race walks here in Naumburg back in 1970.

"We have a national slogan in our country of 1.2 million people. 'Learning is the most important thing in Life'. We intend to learn from the example of Naumburg and La Coruna in how to host a World Cup."

"Lenin in fact had a slogan that went 'Learn, learn, learn' and his father was from the Chuvash Republic - and his mother - from Germany!"

"We're also looking forward to hosting the Russian Summer Walking Championships on 11 and 12 June which will decide the final Olympic selections".

The Junior winner Vera Sokolova still has a year to go at school but is certain about her future role - to follow her idol and training partner Yelena Nikolayeva. "She's like a mother to me" she said after walking away for an easy win the day before.

It's sometime wondered how Russia provides such a production line of talent. Indeed prior to this edition, they have won the last three World Cup team 20km and 50km men's team titles, the 2002 women's team trophy, the same in 1997 and four times previously as the old Soviet Union.

Indeed, on May Day 2004, the old National anthem boomed out five times for the parade of various Russian winners.

Success, of course, breeds success and Russians appear to want it the most.

Other reasons too, some more prosaic. According to visiting Russian sports journalist Nikolay Ivanov "We don't have many walkers in Moscow any more. The centre of gravity has shifted to the eastern republics. Sport is very popular there - Nikolay Fjoderov is the President and he was a famous ice hockey player. His influence is such that he only took the post after securing an increased sports budget from President Putin.

"Also in the Mordoviya Republic they have 1000 race walkers at their race walking training centre and 3000 walkers in outlying villages. Their president is also a fan of race walking in particular and the centre has a budget of 80 million roubles a year - which is big money."

"Physical teachers are paid twice the usual wage for coaching race walkers! They even cancelled the scheme of skiiers to support more walkers. So it's no wonder there are so many good walkers coming from there."

So, with that level of interest and backing, Russia looks set to continue its domination of race walking honours.