The IAAF Race Walking Challenge has been to some unusual places in its 10-year history; but, and with respect to all the other venues, none have been as glamorous as Mauritius, which hosted the African Race Walking Championships on Friday (19).
The eight men toeing the line in Belle Vue this morning negotiated a 1km loop around the Stade Anjalay stadium in the north west of the island.
A group of five soon detached itself from the other three, although the pace still remained modest with 5km reached in just under 23 minutes.
Already showing at the front was the South African champion Lebogang Shange, walking his second 20km inside in six days after having won his country’s title in Stellenbosch on Saturday.
Paying close attention was one of only two African walkers who competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Tunisia’s Hassanine Sebei, who hadn’t finished in London but, with a best of 1:20:19, was looking comfortable in this one.
Less so were Algeria’s Hichem Medjeber and Mohamed Ameur, who along with Tunisia’s 2007 IAAF World Championship bronze medallist and African 20km record-holder Hatem Ghoula, were doing their best to make a fight of it.
Shange, Sebei and Medjeber managed to engineer a slight gap at the halfway point, before three became two at 15km.
The leading pair then got their heads down, with the experienced Sebei tracking the stylish South African all the way to the last lap.
At that point, the 22-year-old Shange dug deep. Hearing the bell, he pushed hard and quickly gained a few steps before increasing it to 30 metres over the final half lap, an advantage he held all the way to the line.
Shange trains with South Africa’s 50km national record-holder Marc Mundell on occasions, and they plan to make it at least a pair of walkers wearing their country's green-and-gold vest in Rio come 2016.
Sebei, coached by his compatriot Ghoula, who is now 39 and finished fifth on Friday, had one of his better races in the last year. In an all-Algerian battle for the final place on the podium, Medjeber was a comfortable and isolated third ahead of Ameur.
Spare a thought also for Eritrea’s determined Yohannes Issei, who was making his debut in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
Issei has no coach; he has only caught fleeting glimpses of races elsewhere on TV, but persevered in making it to the competition on a Friday, which had been postponed from 6 April when Mauritius suffered devastating floods.
Issei lasted only 19 minutes as Kenya’s respected IAAF judge Joseph Ochieng was forced to show him the disqualification disc due to his ragged technique, but the latter was certain the Eritrean would be back for more.
“He has no coach,” said Ochieng, “but plans to go away and work on his style and come back stronger.”
It says much for the future of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge that even the world’s furthest outposts of the discipline are showing progress.
It would be no surprise to Ochieng if there were soon to be some major contenders coming from the continent better known for its distance runners.
“With a little more promotion and one or two more coaches, walking could eventually produce major medallists like other distance events,” reflected Ochieng.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF
1 Lebogang Shange (RSA) 1:28:31
2 Hassanine Sebei (TUN) 1:28:40.
3 Hichem Medjeber (ALG) 1:32:26