China is the leading nation in the women’s races at the World Cup of Race Walking having having won five individual titles since 1983 in the bi-annual event.
Russian or Soviet Union women have won three gold medals in that time, and have had the upper hand of late although at the last World Cup in Turin Erica Alfredi of Italy seized a surprise victory at the line, with Russians taking the next three placings.
The Chinese are back in force!
Now, after something of a gap, the Chinese walkers are back in strength, with a mixture of new and experienced talent.
Since winning her nation’s only athletics gold of the 2000 Olympics Wang Liping raced only in China, including taking the title at the World Student Games in 2001, the year in which she set her best time over 20km of 1:26:23. She also took a year out to have a child.
The 27 year-old from Fengcheng, Liaoning Province, returned to overseas competition in unorthodox manner by winning the 110 km ‘Tour de Romandie’ - an 8 day stage walking race in Switzerland last August and September. A feat of endurance that obviously boosted Wang’s comeback as she recorded her best time since 1991 at the Chinese National Championships at Guangzhou on 21 March this year.
"I feel I'm still in good form," said Wang after coming third in women's 20 kilometres, in 1:28:58, behind 19 year old Song Hongjuan (1:26:46 - the leading time walked this year) and and 18 year old Jiang Jing (1:28:51).
These three, who hold first, fifth and sixth place respectively in this year’s ranking so far, together with Na Shi and Aihui Xu (13th at the Paris World Championships in 2003) make up an exceptionally strong Chinese team who will race on Sunday morning over 20km at Naumburg.
Song Hongjuan is the holder of the holder of the world junior best time of 1:27:16 and her latest win is by far the quickest time in the world so far this year. She competed in the Paris World Championships last season, but was disqualified so may choose a cautious approach in order to build up her oversees experience ahead of the Olympics.
In truth, the Chinese women’s period of dominance - with first and second places at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville and Wang’s victory at Sydney - relied upon prominent disqualifications ahead of them. The weight of Chinese expectations will mean there will be plenty of pressure not to make mistakes.
Tough Russian competition
At Paris last year it was Yelena Nikolayeva of Russia together with Ireland’s Gillian O’Sullivan who broke the field, but the competition this year may be tougher, not only because of the renewed Chinese challenge but also the sudden emergence at the age of 32 years old Yuliya Voyevodina (the wife of the current World Cup 50km title Alexei Voyevodin), who won the Russian Winter Championship in 1:28:30.
Natalya Fedoskina is also in the Russian team having been second at Adler, in a time of 1:28:36. The 23 year old came third at the last edition of the IAAF World Cup of Race Walking, and was also runner-up back in the 1999 event.
Although she hasn’t shown form so far this year, at the fine age of 38, Yelena Nikolayeva is back again for Russia and will be looking to maintain her consistency in World Cups following her third placing in 1993, second placing in 1995 and fourth placing in 2002. The current World champion may also have in mind the promise she made last year in Paris to be in condition to regain the Olympic title she won in Atlanta 1996.
Greek medal prospect
The fact that Olympic year will be uppermost in the thoughts of the Greek supporters and in Athiná Papayiánni, who dramatically improved her 20km best time earlier this month in winning the Balkan Cup in Romania to a new National Record of 1:28:58, it appears they have a prospect for a medal. Proven performers Gillian O'Sullivan, Maria Vasco of Spain and Susana Feitor of Portugal may have their own ideas about that, however.
It’s hard to imagine a race that could be as exciting as Erica Alfridi’s dramatic sprint for victory ahead of Olimpiada Ivanova in 2002 on the streets of Turin but the increased opportunities for competition presented by the IAAF Grand Prix Series can only help raise the level of competition.
Riguado - propelled into contention
Gillian O’Sullivan emerged in the first year of the series as a championship contender and the second year may well propel 23 year old Elisa Riguado to the same level. Her time of 1:28:50 in winning in Tijuana in Mexico six weeks ago ranks the Italian as fourth fastest walker this year, and after continuing her winning-streak at the at the Rio Maior Grand Prix two weeks later Elisa will, no doubt, be dreaming of repeating Alfridi’s win for the ‘Azzurri’.
Erica Alfridi will be at Naumburg to defend her title but will need to improve by more than four and a half minutes from her eleventh position in Tijuana to match the time she walked to achieve her emotional victory at the last World Cup.