Elena Lashmanova of Russia leads the pack during the Women's 20km Walk on Day 15 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Mall on August 11, 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Not only was Olga Kaniskina the defending champion, but she had won the past three World titles in the 20km Race Walk too. Put simply, she is one of the most dominant athletes in the world.
But the World Cup earlier this year – where Kaniskina was beaten by younger team-mate Yelena Lashmanova – gave a glimpse of what was to come at the London Olympics, and in a sensational finish, Kaniskina found herself being overtaken once more by the new star of the race walking world, who produced the third athletics World record of the London Olympics.
Kaniskina wasted no time as she shot into the lead from the outset. World silver medallist Liu Hong spotted the danger and made up the distance as the pair went through the first two kilometre lap in 8:33. They remained at each others' side for the next few kilometres, and as they went through 6km together in 25:32, it soon became clear that they were operating at World record pace.
Liu was unable to stick with Kaniskina for much longer, however, and the Russian began to open up a gap as she maintained her relentless pace. By this point a chase pack had formed, albeit a relatively small one given that it was still early on in the race. But in that pack were the other team-mates of both Kaniskina and Liu – Russia's Lashmanova and Anisya Kirdyapkina, and Chinese pair Qieyang Shenjie and Lu Xiuzhi.
Kaniskina continued to churn out the 8:30 laps of the 2km circuit as she went through halfway in 42:33. Liu was some 17 seconds behind as the chase pack were beginning to eat into the deficit. With thousands of fans lining The Mall near Buckingham palace to cheer the athletes on, Kaniskina's lead just grew and grew. Liu, meanwhile, drifted back and she was caught by the chase pack – now down to three – just after the 12-kilometre point.
But then Lashmanova began to make her move. Tracked closely by Qieyang between 14km and 16km, Lashmanova produced an 8:24 lap to eat into Kaniskina's lead. Perhaps sensing that her lead was under threat, Kaniskina covered the next lap in 8:27 – her fastest of the race – but Lashmanova and Qieyang were even quicker with an 8:20 lap as Kaniskina's leading margin once again decreased.
The increase in speed meant that Kaniskina was back on World record pace, but Lashmanova was accelerating at a quicker rate. With just one kilometre to go, the teenager had moved to within a couple of seconds of Kaniskina. The contrast in styles between the pair was notable – Kaniskina, gritting her teeth with exaggerated movement from side-to-side; and Lashmanova, the taller of the pair looking cool and relaxed, ready to pounce when the moment was right.
And pounce she did, moving past Kaniskina with just 100 metres to go. She pulled clear and crossed the line in 1:25:02, breaking the World record in just her third ever race over the distance, and becoming the youngest ever Olympic champion in a race walking event. Kaniskina held on for silver in 1:25:09 with Qieyang setting an Asian record of 1:25:16 for the bronze medal.
China and Russia filled the top six spots between them, as the first five dipped inside the previous Olympic record. Having seen her team-mate break her Asian record one place ahead, Liu finished fourth (1:26:00) with Kirdyapkina in fifth and Lu sixth. With four women at 1:26 or quicker, eight under 1:28 and 15 under 1:30, it was the highest-quality women's 20km ever at the Olympics.
It should be noted that there are two faster performances in history than Lashmanova's World record – 1:24:50 by Olimpiada Ivanova and 1:24:56 by Kaniskina. But these were both set in Russia without the required number of international officials and so were not ratified as World records.
"This morning I would never have imagined something like this – I would never have imagined such an outcome," said a delighted Lashmanova.
"At the start I was not sure about how I was feeling. During most of the race, I was at such a distance from the lead that I was losing heart, but at each lap my trainer told me to keep calm, to keep quiet and to press on, to not give up.
"I continued and at the last lap I saw the others were tired and falling behind, so I accelerated and took my chance," she added. "But not until I crossed the line did I think I would get a medal."
Meanwhile, Kaniskina was gracious in defeat. "It wasn't very lucky for me to lose the race at the last minute, and it's difficult for me to deal with," she said. "I am very pleased for my teammate though, she deserved it."
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF