Gold medalist Olga Kaniskina of Russia celebrates as she crosses the finish line during the women's 20km race walk during day five (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.
Junior women’s 10k -
There is no one within two minutes of the Russian quartet on 2012 times.
Nadezhda Leontyeva leads the list with 44:32 clocked at the Sochi seaside in February where most of the current best times for senior Russians were also recorded.
In the recent past, walking’s world raised an eyebrow at some of the superlative finishes in the Russian Winter Championships, but the canny hosts now invite approved IAAF judges, so that no-one is left in any doubt about the strength of the competition.
Behind Leontyeva comes Ekaterina Medvedeva on 44:46, with Alena Azyrkina (45:52) and Olga Dubrovian (46:22) bringing up the rear – if you can call it that.
Last time out in the heat of Chihuahua, there was a surprise for the Russians when Italy broke the tape, but this is back on familiar territory.
Four years ago in Cheboksary, down the road from Saransk, the winning Russian trio was clear of the field after 50 metres.
If there is to be a surprise, like disqualifications, then Chinese Dandan Duan finished high up the 2011 rankings and could at least mix it with the home team.
Toeing the line for Australia is Rachel Tallent, younger sister of multi-medal winner Jared, who along with wife Rachel make up a unique family trio competing in the Cup.
Women's 20k -
If there is to be a challenge to Russia – it will surely come from China.
The latter produced a slew of personal bests, not to mention an Asian record for Liu Hong at the IAAF Challenge race at Taicang in March.
Liu’s 1:25:46 still requires 19 seconds on the current best 2012 time. But the Chinese has international pedigree including IAAF World Championship silver and bronze, and refuses to kowtow to the Russian charge at competition.
Behind her in Taicang came Gao Ni, Lu Xiuzhi, Nie Jingjing with comfortable sub 1:30:00 clockings, and Qieyang Shenjie (1:27:04) who took exactly a minute off her personal best set on the same course a year earlier.
But one Russian has got a faster time even than Liu.
Like Liu, Elmira Alembekova was on home soil in February where she stopped the clock at 1:25:27. But the bronze junior medallist from Cheboksary four years ago knows some of her illustrious teammates have yet to reveal their 2012 hand.
The all-conquering Olga Kaniskina, with gold from every major championship, as well as world-record holder Vera Sokolova wait in the wings.
And when Anisya Kirdyapkina, Yuliya Loshmanova and Irina Yumanova get thrown into the homegrown mix, cue the hosts’ national anthem.
However, the battle for team bronze is intriguing.
Portugal in the shape of Susan Feitor, Ines Henriques, Vera Santos and Ana Cabecinha with a 2012 1:29:53 have trod this path before, and across the border, Spain headed by Maria José Poves’ 1:28:15 is an equal threat.
They also have defending champion, Maria Vasco back for the ninth time, who at 36 shows no signs of hanging up her racing shoes after recording a nippy 1:28:54 in March.
But if the Iberian Peninsula has previous success, out of the blue, Poland has become an instant force.
Only last month at Zaniemysl near Poznan, a quartet headed by Paulina Buziak (1:29:44) all got under 1:32:00 and Agnieszka Szwarnóg’s 1:30:56 was a staggering eight-minute improvement on her old mark.
Individuals sticking elbows out for a fight to the podium include Germany’s Sabine Krantz and Melanie Seeger, Italy’s Elisa Rigaudo, and as far as 2012 times go, Sycely Ortiz Flores (Guatemala) 1:28:54, and Australia’s Rachel Tallent, who with 1:28:53 in Taicang sliced more than three minutes off her previous PB.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF
- Gold medalist Olga Kaniskina of Russia celebrates as she crosses the finish line during the women's 20km race walk during day five (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Hong Liu, Olga Kaniskina and Melanie Seeger in La Coruna (Véronique Warburton) © Copyright
- Vera Sokolova en route to her dominant performance at the European Cup of Race Walking in Olhão (Marcelino Almeida) © Copyright