Russia’s Olympic 20km champions Olga Kaniskina and Valeriy Borchin are the star attractions of the Chinese leg of the 2009 IAAF Race Walking Challenge which takes place this weekend (18/19) in Wuxi, a coastal city in Jiangsu province.
Wuxi, dubbed the "Little Shanghai", referring to its massive economic development, is a city of more than 2 million inhabitants with a history of about 3000 years. It is situated in the middle of the Yangtze Delta, Taihu Plain in southeast of Jiangsu.
One year ago this weekend the Chinese edition of the 2008 IAAF Race Walking Challenge was given the honour of inaugurating Beijing’s Olympic stadium, becoming the first sporting event to be held in what is now commonly dubbed the ‘Bird’s Nest’.
At 9am on Friday 18 April 2008 the men’s 20km race walkers set off, and later on in the day (1500hrs) the women took their turn at the same race distance. The result of these races saw Australia’s Jared Tallent and China’s Liu Hong respectively becoming the first sports victors in the stadium which later in the summer was to attract 1.2 million spectators to watch ten days (men’s marathon only on the final day) of some of the best track and field action in Olympic history.
Tallent, who was to go on an win the overall Challenge title last year, and Hong, the 2006 World Junior and Asian Games champion, didn’t quite live up to their ‘test’ event victories when the actual 2008 Olympic 20km races were played out - men’s 16 Aug / women’s 21 Aug - with the Australian having to settle for bronze, and Hong left in the unluckiest sport of all, just off the podium in fourth place.
Both walkers return to contest this (18) Saturday’s 20km Challenge races in Wuxi, while on Sunday (19) in the men’s 50km China’s Si Tianfeng who also won last year’s Challenge edition in Beijing at that distance only then to finish 17th in the Olympic race (22 Aug), will line-up against a field of domestic opponents. His main challenge should come from Wang Hao who won the 20km in Rio Maior on 4 April and is also contesting the 20km on Saturday, and from Zhao Chengliang, who was fifth in the 2005 World championships at 50km.
The Chinese federation and the Wuxi organisers have done a marvellous job in attracting much of the cream of international race walking to explore this city, and of the three Beijing race walking champions only Italy’s 50km champion Alex Schwazer is missing from the starting line-up for the senior races.
The Olympic 20km limelight in Beijing shone on two Russians last summer, Olga Kaniskina and Valeriy Borchin and both have returned to China to contest further honours on Saturday.
In the women’s race, as well as Liu Hong and her compatriot Jiang Jing, the 2004 World Cup silver medallist and 2008 Chinese champion, Kaniskina who is also the reigning World champion has as her main opponent her Russian country woman Lyudmila Arkhipova, who was fourth behind Kaniskina in last year’s World Cup in Cheboksary.
The men’s 20km field is much deeper with elite walkers, and so Borchin as well as facing Tallent among others must also take on another Australian Luke Adams, the overall Challenge winner in 2007 who was sixth in the 2008 Olympics, Tunisia’s 2007 World Champs bronze medallist Hatem Ghoula, China’s aforementioned Wang Hao who was fourth at the Olympics at 20km, Mexico’s Eder Sanchez who was third in the 2008 World Cup, and Spain’s Juan Manuel Molina who finished 8th in that Cheboksary contest.
Chris Turner for the IAAF