(L-R) Silver medalist Erick Barrondo of Guatemala, gold medalist, Ding Chen of China, and bronze medalist Zhen Wang of China celebrate their medals in the Men's 20k Walk on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 4, 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games was not the only birthday present for Chen, who turns 20 tomorrow, the former World Junior silver medallist capping a superb 20km race with a new Olympic record 1:18.46, breaking the mark legendary Robert Korzeniowski had set to win the 2000 Games.
Having broken away from his pursuers with two kilometres to go, Chen completed arguably the most entertaining lap in the history of race walking as he acknowledged the crowd and clapped hands with the crowd all the way through the course! Pumping his chest and throwing his fist in the air in supreme confidence, Chen walked the final stages of the race smiling away to the crowd and to the TV cameras.
"I am excited for everybody in China, for my family and my coach," said Chen. "I had a good preparation and I executed my plan well. Finally, I have made it!"
Chen’s grin was in total contrast with scenes of defending Olympic champion Valeriy Borchin literally walking himself to exhaustion halfway through the final lap. The 25-year-old Beijing winner who was still in contention for a medal as he passed the final bend of the 2-kilometre circuit dramatically fell to the side fences and it looked as though he had lost consciousness too. The Russian was stretched off the course and taken by ambulance by the medical staff.
Borchin’s collapse led to another piece of Olympic history being written when 21-year-old Erick Barrondo crossed the finish line in second winning Guatemala's first ever Olympic medal in any sport. His 1:18:57 was also inside previous Olympic record.
Asian record holder and winner of the IAAF World Race Walking Cup Wang Zhen came in third at 1:19:25 taking his country’s second race walking medal in the history of the Olympics and the second medal for China in this race.
To underscore their dominance at the event, fourth place also went China’s way courtesy of Cai Zelin who ran a superb last part of the race to finish in 1:19:44 just ahead of another fast finishing Miguel Angel Lopez at 1:19:49, a PB for the Spaniard.
Eder Sanchez clocked a season’s best time 1:19:52 to finish in sixth ahead of defending silver medallist Jarred Tallent whose 1:20:02 was his best of the year.
With two under 1:19 and six under 1:20, this was the highest-quality 20km walk in Olympic history.
The race was billed as a China vs Russia affair but the European powerhouse strength was decimated with their second string Vladimir Kanaykin being disqualified 16 kilometre into the race. With Borchin also bowing out, Russia’s best today was an unbelievable 37th by Andrey Krivov. The last time Russia did not feature among the top 8 was at the Barcelona Olympic Games 20 years ago.
It was Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki who established himself at the front passing through 6km in 24.19, 7 seconds ahead of a pack of just over 20 walkers including Ukraine’s Ruslan Dmytrenko, Irishman Robert Hefferman and France’s Bertrand Moulinet in the forefront.
Suzuki went through 8km in 32.19 but his lead was slashed down to a mere three seconds and that is when the Chinese made their first appearance at the front. Wang went into the lead with Chen, Borchin and Kanaykin on his heels, the two big nations beginning to make an impact. Jarred Tallent, Eder Sanchez and Colombia’s Luis Fernando Lopez along with Barrondo featured also prominently.
At the halfway mark a dozen athletes were still in the leading pack with Wang, who went through in 40:08 looking over his shoulder in search for a volunteer to take over the pace.
It was France’s Moulinet who made a move 42 minutes into the race making an impact on the pack which also included India’s Irfan Kolothum Thodi.
Borchin decided he could not let the Frenchman increase his lead any further and moved to the front of the chasing pack of 11-men. At the 12km check point Moulinet’s lead was cut down to 4 seconds as Borchin and the Chinese pair of Wang and Chen pushed harder and harder. Tallent made also an appearance at the front alongside Sanchez with Kanaykin and Barrondo on their heels.
As soon as he was caught, Moulinet moved all the way down to the back of the 12-man leading pack and together with Kolothum Thodi started losing touch leaving 10 men at the front.
That is when Chen made his first notable surge which saw Heffernan and Spain’s Lopez drop off the lead.
As 14km was reached in 55.54, the pack began to splinter down with Chen, Wang, Barrondo and Borchin creating a gap with the trio of Lopez (COL), Tallent and Sanchez.
Kanaykyn seeing the danger coming made a strong effort to regroup with the leading four. Lopez also regrouped with the pack a few hundred metres later to make it six men at the front: 2 Chinese, 2 Russians, 1 Colombian and 1 Guatemalan one hour into the race.
As Borchin and Chen were taking turns in the lead, the chief judge approached the lead pack and showed the red paddle to Lopez. The same fate was to fall on Kanaykin just a few minutes later cutting the lead pack from 6 to 4 in the penultimate lap.
Chen gave another push 1:07 minutes into the race as Borchin covered in again the short lived gap at the front but Wang fell off the pace for the first time in the race.
18km was passed in 1:11:15 with Chen now increasing his lead to 6 seconds over Borchin and Barrondo a couple of seconds behind.
Chen made impressive ground at the front and attention turned to the battle for silver. Wang who went through a rough period caught up with the chasing pack and injected his own piece of surge which Borchin could not respond to. Barrondo found the extra strength to go with Wang and then made his own move to go into clear silver medal position with 1:15 minutes on the clock.
Borchin ended his Olympic campaign in dramatic fashion as Wang was now guaranteed a medal.
Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF