If ever there was a time for Robert Korzeniowski to claim his first World Walking Cup title, it will be on Sunday at the small former East German town of Naumburg, 50km south of Leipzig – an appropriate distance for the superman of walking.
The only fly in the treble Olympic gold medallist’s ointment could be a rampant Jefferson Perez snapping at his heels.
There was no quarter given at the IAAF Grand Prix in Tijuana in March when the Ecuadorian inched ahead to win in 79:33 to Korzeniowski’s 79:41 – just eight seconds ahead.
Now, by his own admission, this is the Pole’s last chance to claim a first since he debuted in the competition 13 years ago, having previously setting his sights on an alternative diet of World Championships and Olympic Games.
This will also be the last major 20km for the 35-year-old, especially as he will defend only his 50km title in Athens.
But the truth is that Perez has blistering speed over the last 2 kilometres as he amply demonstrated when lifting the World Championships in Paris last August. If it comes to a final sprint, Perez will almost certainly retain the title he won in Turin 18 months ago.
If anybody is likely to upset their apple-cart it could come from the traditionally strong Russia and China teams.
Apart from Tijuana, there are only two other races that have featured in the top 11 best times for 2004.
At Guangzhou province on the same day as Perez and Korzeniowski were doing battle in Mexico, an almost unknown Chinese, Yucheng Han was re-writing the Asian record with a super fast 79:30. But the highlight of the 25-year-old’s weekend came when he was the first Chinese to go under 3:40:00 for 50km, just two days later.
Provided he has recovered from his stunning double-act, Han’s confidence will be high enough to take on the best in the world and spring a surprise.
The Russian seaside town of Adler on the Black Sea, has also been host to some pretty pacy times in the past, and this February’s edition was no different. Vladimir Stankin’s 77:23 winning effort was the fastest this year by nearly a minute, but second place, both in the rankings and at Adler, was teammate Vladimir Parvatkin.
Former World Champion Roman Rasskazov was third in 78:35, although he suffered the chief judge’s red disc as things hotted up in Turin when Perez turned up the gas.
The intriguing entry sees junior walker Vladimir Kanaykin entered for both the 20km and the inaugural 10km. Considering Kanaykin won the 35km senior title at Adler in a world best time, there’s a fair bet he could finish in the shake-up for both races in Naumburg.
As far as outsiders are concerned, Ivano Brugnetti is back in form after five relatively lean years since he won gold at the 1999 World Championships.
The Italian was third in Tijuana, and has the pedigree to mix it with the front group.
Such is the appeal of the Walking Cup, Liberia makes its debut in the shape of a single entrant, Friday Kollie.
It’s a fair bet that with the race likely to be won in under 80:00, Friday is going to find Sunday a stiff debut along the Naumburg streets.