Valeriy Borchin on Russia on his way to the men's 20km Race Walk World title (Getty Images) © Copyright
It is difficult to see past a Russian romp at the 25th IAAF World Race Walking Cup – and not just because the superpower can swan it in its own backyard. The competition may be celebrating its silver anniversary, but gold in every event, that is EVERY event of five plus teams, will still get you short odds.
Elsewhere, there is the odd crucial gap in visiting teams, but practically everyone in a red vest who matters is expected to grace the streets of Saransk, home to the Russian race walking centre.
Men’s 50k -
Russia were always going to be the team to beat – but their task got even easier when three key opponents absented themselves from the 8.30 a.m. Sunday morning start.
Defending champion Matej Toth has decided to give the race a miss, and joining the Slovakian on the sidelines is Italy’s Alex Schwazer – the man with the 2012 leading times for both 20k and 50k.
By his own admission, Frenchman Yohan Diniz bit off more than he could chew trying to compete twice in six March days, and will now concentrate on the Olympics.
But if there is hope for the rest as they challenge the red phalanx – the clue is the race itself. Even the best on a bad day suffer like novices.
Former IAAF World Championship gold Sergey Kirdyapkin was in the land of the living dead as he crawled through the streets of La Coruna in 2006. And when you suffer in this race, you really suffer.
So in the absence of world record holder Denis Nizhegorodov, take your pick from five other Russians including Kirdyapkin and 2011 IAAF Championship gold Sergey Bakulin.
The latter looks as if he has the bit between his teeth, but if there is to be a threat from outside, Jared Tallent is more than a decent bet. Looking good for ultimate success in Daegu until sickness took a hold and Bakulin took advantage, not for the first time, the plucky Australian recovered to take bronze – just as he did at the last World Cup two years ago when his stomach also let him down.
If the Olympic silver medallist can hold it all together, he could become the second Aussie to top the 50k World Cup podium after Simon Baker in 1989.
Elsewhere, there is a strong Chinese challenge with Si Tianfeng ready to better his encouraging fourth in Daegu. And Poland, in the wake of Robert Korzeniowski, also has a strong quartet.
A 3:44:24 PB for Lukasz Nowak at Dudince in March shows there is a possible heir apparent to the walking legend.
Men’s 20k -
Only three countries have walkers with sub 80-minutes behind their names for 2012 going into this one.
No prizes for guessing the hosts and China. And when you add Guatemala’s Erick Barrondo (1:18:25) you have the cream of current clockings.
Alex Schwazer has the fastest 20k so far, but the Italian won’t be racing the streets around the town’s iconic cathedral.
Any prayers the rest have depend on a bad day for the two big walking nations, that and judges removing those who don’t pass muster.
Russia will have the two-fastest walkers of all time as well as the Olympic, World, and IAAF Challenge winner – and that’s just three of them.
Vladimir Kanaykin set the current World record in Saransk five years ago at the IAAF Challenge final, while Sergey Morozov raced to an unratified 1:16:43 on the same streets a year later. Valeriy Borchin has yet to race the distance this year – but does anyone really think the triple champion will trip up in his hometown?
One has to feel for Stanislav Emelyanov.
The former IAAF junior and youth champion walked a stupendous 1:18:29 at Sochi to improve his old mark by more than a minute, but may find he’s looking at the heels of his compatriots.
Andrey Krivov beat Emelyanov by four seconds in February, and both had to look down the road to glimpse Andrey Ruzavin (1:17:47).
Could all six realistically have an off day? Only if someone slips off the edge of a flat world staring at a flying pig.
China will be up there for the first stanza when up to 25 walkers has judges peering through a tangle of legs.
And although it’s a very young Chinese team, it’s also very mature one as far as winning goes.
Wang Zhen is just 20, but the 1:17:36 he posted in Taicang to win the IAAF Challenge sits well with his 2010 IAAF Challenge triumph and the world junior 10k record that went with it.
Even younger, Chen Ding is not 20 until August but his 1:17:40 was a toucher away from his teammate in March.
Wang Hao won’t give up his 2010 title without a fight, and Cai Zelin has eyes on improving the IAAF World Cup junior silver from Chihuahua.
Fighting to stay with them over the second half in Saransk should be the fast-improving Barrondo who has at least one edge over his rivals.
Everyone mentioned so far posted 2012 times at home, but the Guatemalan was 4,000 miles from base when he got third in Lugano behind Schwazer and Yohan Diniz from France.
The best of the rest include former European Cup winner Giorgio Rubino (Italy, 1:20:10), Dawid Tomala (Poland: 1:20:50), Chris Linke (Germany: 1:20:41), Eder Sánchez (Mexico, 1:20:49) and France’s Bertrand Moulinet (1:20:52) – who may yet be in their own separate race as China and Russia duel down the road apiece.
Junior men’s 10k -
What happens down on the Black Sea coast in February tends to decide rankings for any given year – and 2012 is no exception.
The first four young Russians across the line in Sochi at the Russian Winter Championships duly got the nod for Saransk. But there are plenty likely to give Alex Ivanov (40:48) Damir Baybikov (40:53), Kirill Frolov Kirill (40:57) and Pavel Parshin Pavel (40:59) a walk for their money.
For a start, defending champion Eider Arevalo is on his way to Saransk after the Colombian posted a nippy 43:04 in February.
And on the superfast course that was Taicang at the IAAF Challenge supporting race in March, a trio of Chinese all made their mark, the fastest of which, Jiang Shan (41:31), should be up with the leaders.
Likewise on home territory in Chihuahua, the Mexican trio of Jesus Vega (41:52), Erwin González (42:01) and Mario Sánchez (42:13) suggested the production line from a walking superpower is well oiled.
Spain has Alvaro Martin’s 41:32 from March to boost their hopes, and there are walkers from Australia, Germany, Poland, Italy and Australia all ready to form a throng over the opening kilometres.
Should the judges get to work on errant Russian juniors under pressure to produce, any one from eight countries could upset the home applecart.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF