In its third year as an IAAF Race Walking Challenge event, the ‘Na Rynek Marsz’ competition in Krakow on Saturday (30) is looking more exciting than ever and promising to be one of the highlights of the season.
The men’s and women’s 10km races, which take place around the famed market square of Poland’s former capital, will feature all the three reigning Olympic Race Walking champions – Olga Kaniskina (20km), Valeriy Borchin (20km) and Alex Schwazer (50km).
Many of the other greatest stars of race walking have also accepted the invitation from meeting director Robert Korzeniowski, including Jefferson Perez, Francisco Javier Fernandez and Kjersti Platzer.
NOTE - rather than the standard championship distance of 20km, both senior races in Krakow are being contested over 10km, but as this distance is seldom contested at this top international level the following previews are based upon the 20km pedigree of each athlete.
Valeriy Borchin may be only 22, but his competitive resume is rich with major success. The 20km gold in Beijing is the highlight of his career so far, but the young Russian also finished second in the 2008 World Cup and the 2006 European Championships. This year, he has already set the world leading time for 20km of 1:17:38 in winning the highly competitive national winter championships, and went on to triumph against a strong international field in the Race Walking Challenge race in Wuxi.
As hot as Borchin’s form has looked, he cannot be considered the unquestionable favourite in a race featuring Francisco Javier Fernandez. The 32-year-old Spaniard has been one of the most consistent performers of the last decade, taking silver medals at 20km in the last three editions of the World Championships, another silver in the 2004 Olympic Games, and two European Championship golds. While Fernandez disappointingly finished only seventh in Beijing, last year also saw his second consecutive World Cup win.
This year, like Borchin, Fernandez has been unbeaten, winning the IAAF Challenge race in Sesto San Giovanni, a European permit meet in Santa Eulalia, and setting a very fast time of 3:41:06 in his debut at 50 kilometres in San Pedro del Pinatar.
A surprising entrant in Krakow is one of the all-time race walking greats, Jefferson Perez. The Olympic 20km champion from 1996, silver medallist from Beijing and three-time World champion, the Equadorian officially announced his retirement after last year’s Olympic Games and has not competed since September. His form is therefore something of a mystery.
For the other reigning Olympic men’s champion, Alex Schwazer, a 50 kilometre specialist, the Krakow race will be an opportunity to work on his speed. The Italian has not been as successful at the 20km distance, with a PB of 1:21:38 going back three years. In his only 20km outing at this distance in 2009, he finished seventh in Sesto San Giovanni.
Perhaps more likely to challenge for top placings over 10km is another 50 kilometre specialist, Yohann Diniz of France. The current European champion and World Championship silver medalist at the 50km distance, Diniz also has a PB of 1:18:58 over 20 kilometres set in winning the 2007 European Cup. After an injury-plagued 2008 season, the Frenchman is back with a vengeance this year. He currently holds the fastest times of the year at both 5000 metres and 50 kilometres, and could be dangerous at the 10km distance as well. One question mark is whether Diniz will have recovered sufficiently after his eighth place in the European Cup just last weekend.
A few more men who competed last weekend in Metz are making the trip to Krakow. One of them is Ireland’s Robert Heffernan. The Irishman finished fourth in that race over 20km, and his resume includes top-8 placings at the last World Championships and Olympic Games. Joao Vieira of Portugal did not finish the European Cup race, but this European championship medallist has been enjoying a solid season, with third places in Sesto San Giovanni and Santa Eulalia. Matej Toth of Slovakia finished ninth in Metz, but his season also includes a PB of 1:20:53 and a 50 kilometre national record of 3:41:32.
The race will naturally also include Poland’s best race walkers, such as the eighth and ninth-place finishers from Beijing at 50 kilometres, Rafal Fedaczynski and Grzegorz Sudol, as well as Rafal Augustyn, who finished seventh in Metz last weekend.
An equally impressive field has been put together in the women’s 10km race. That race, however, has one clear favourite. Olga Kaniskina is the current World, Olympic and World Cup 20km champion, with a winning streak going back to 2007. This year, the 24-year-old Russian won the national winter championships in the fastest ever time recorded for 20km of 1:24:56 (which is unlikely to be ratified as a world record as 3 international judges have to be present for records to be ratified) and was an impressive winner in Wuxi against the coalition of Chinese walkers.
The closest challenger to Kaniskina is expected to be the 37-year-old Kjersti Platzer with an international career stretching back for well over 20 years. Last year the Norwegian became the oldest ever Olympic female walking medaklist, taking silver behind the Russian. This was the second Olympic silver of her career, after the one she took in Sydney eight years earlier. Platzer is still going strong, and has had a great season so far with three IAAF Challenge wins, as well as one at Santa Eulalia at 10 kilometres, and is the clear leader in the overall Challenge standings.
The trio of 20km medallists from Beijing will be complete with Elisa Rigaudo. The bronze from Beijing was the second major medal of the Italian’s career, after the bronze at the European Championships two years previously. Rigaudo’s career list of third-place finishes now also includes two of this year’s Race Walking Challenge competitions: Chihuahua and Sesto San Giovanni.
The three women sitting directly behind Platzer in the current IAAF challenge standings will also join the action in Krakow. The second position is currently occupied by Vera Santos of Portugal, second in Rio Maior and fourth in Sesto San Giovanni, but a non-finisher in the recent European Cup. Santos also finished third in last year’s World Cup in Cheboksary and was ninth in Beijing.
Behind her in the overall standings is Claudia Stef of Romania, the sixth-place finisher of the last World Championships, has already finished in the points in three IAAF Challenge races this year.
In fourth place overall is Santos’s compatriot Ines Henriques, second in Chihuahua and third in Rio Maior. Henriques’s career highlights include a seventh place in the last World Championships.
Two more women who finished in the top eight at last year’s Olympic Games are also making the trip to Krakow: seventh-placer Olive Loughnane and Ana Cabecinha, eighth in that race. Neither of them has yet shown spectacular results in 2009, although Loughnane had a solid performance in the European Cup, finishing fourth.
The Polish challenge will be led by the national 20km record holder Sylwia Korzeniowska and Agnieszka Dygacz, who recently qualified for this year’s World Championships 20km with a PB of 1:32:39.
Pawel Jackowski for the IAAF