Beijing, ChinaWith the first day of competition at the Bird’s Nest officially in the books, it was left to the best of China’s 50km race walkers to deliver a stunning display of dominance on the second day of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Beijing.
Chinese walkers swept the top ten at the event, which is serving as both the Olympic test event and the Chinese Olympic Trials. As expected, and to the delight of a crowd of approximately 20,000 spectators who nearly filled the lower tier of National Stadium, Chinese walkers dominated the race from start to finish, with a moderate upset win going to Shandong-based walker Si Tianfeng (3:45:13) over pre-race favorites Zhao Chengliang, Yu Chaohong, and Xing Shucai.
The weather was a far cry from the hot, hazy conditions of the day before and the conditions expected this summer at the Olympics. With rain forecasted for the evening, the stadium was a chilly 16 degrees C. with 57% humidity at the race’s start, significantly cooler than yesterday’s peak of 27 degrees.
Spectator enthusiasm for the Bird’s Nest had not dimmed at all from the previous day’s opening. “The Bird’s Nest looks majestic from the outside and grand from the inside,” said 28-year old Beijing native Liu Jiayin. “The facilities are very good. Just looking at the stadium gives people such a strong feeling of visual impact. It is impressive.”
The Chinese fans were rewarded for their enthusiasm. Wu Guosong led for the first 3.5 laps inside the stadium, beaming as he led the competition out the northwest tunnel to chants of “Jia you! Jia you!” (“Let’s go!”) Zhang Defu passed Wu as they began the first of 24 laps around the Olympic Green’s concrete course. Disqualified after only 5km, Zhang was one of several walkers who would be disqualified on this day when leading the race. Zhao Yongping and Geng Zhiyao, each in second place at the 10k and 15k marks respectively, were similarly disqualified as their ambitious pace compromised their form. The most notable disqualification came at the 40k mark when one of the top seeds, Xue Baijin, who competed in the lead pack for the duration of the race, cried when he learned he was DQed.
Training partners and pre-race favorites Zhao Chengliang, Yu Chaohong, and Xing Shucai appeared to execute different race plans. Xing, fourth at the 2007 IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Shenzhen, China, matched the tempo of the lead pack until he hit the 15km mark in the lead, powering ahead to register a surprising 58-second lead at the 20k mark. Meanwhile, after hovering behind the lead pack, area record holder Yu Chaohong (3:36:06) and Zhao Chengliang, silver medalist behind Yu at the Tenth National Games in 2005 with his personal best of 3:36:13, joined the lead pack. At the halfway point, Xing still led, though the pack had whittled his once commanding lead down to a mere two seconds. Si Tianfeng (PB 3:42:55, 2005), the outside favorite considered most likely to challenge the big three, posed a consistent threat as one of the fastest walkers, holding or contesting for first place throughout the race.
The sun poked through the clouds to heat the race course to 20 degrees as Si carved out a slight lead at 30km. Yu and Zhao loomed 17 seconds behind as they led the pack with Li Jianbo (PB 4:19:24, 2007), who also emerged as a constant fixture in the lead pack throughout various shifts in momentum. By the 35km mark, the four isolated themselves form the rest of the pack, with Si ahead by 15 seconds, Zhao, Li and Yu only seconds apart from one another. It was the closest they would ever get to overtaking the leader, who held 32- and 17-second leads at the 40 and 45km marks. Si exploded in the final 5km, unleashing a single fist pump as he headed into the final 1,000m unencumbered. The crowd erupted as he re-entered the stadium alone. Si clearly enjoyed the spotlight, decisively winning the gold with his season’s best time of 3:45:13. Zhao, his nearest competition, entered the stadium a full minute and 27 seconds later, grabbing the silver with his 3:47:14 finish.
Li hit the track almost four and a half minutes after Zhao. For a few seconds, it seemed he would also stride the final 100m alone, but then Yu burst into the stadium, pushing the pace as he battled unsuccessfully to close the gap. Li was able to hold the lead, however, edging out Yu for the bronze with his season’s best time of 3:52:12. Yu finished in 3:52:18, slowing when he realized he could not catch Li, and dropped to the track after crossing the finish line, exhausted. The silver and bronze medalists each grabbed one of Yu’s hands, raising his arms over his head. Afterwards, Li said of Yu, “He’s an icon in our sport with 15 years of racing…He finished fourth today, and that is a good result. We must learn from his willpower.” When asked what the raised-arms display meant, Zhao said simply, “What else is there to say?” He raised his fist once more, adding, “That says it all.”
The effect of pollution on the quality of competition and the health of the athletes has been much-monitored during Beijing’s Olympic test events, of particular concern for endurance athletes who will have the longest exposure to the air. “I felt like the air quality was good today, especially considering the stadium is still being built,” Zhao assured the media. “I’m not worried about it. There are still several months to go, and I’m confident the air will be even better by the Olympics.”
On his dominant finish, Si said simply, “I wasn’t really thinking anything in the final 5km, just that if I could stick to what I did in training, I’d be fine. Of course, I was very tired, but just wanted to persevere. Our sport requires endurance, and the final five kilometers are definitely crucial, so I’m pretty satisfied with my performance today.”
The crowd was also satisfied with the results as Chinese race walkers swept the top ten, a promising conclusion to the Bird’s Nest debut for the Olympic host country.
Mary Nicole Nazzaro for the IAAF with Caitlin Rhodes in Beijing
1. Si Tianfeng, Shandong 3:45:13
2. Zhao Chengliang, Yunnan 3:47:14 - 2:01
3. Li Jianbo, Yunnan 3:52:12 - 6:59
4. Yu Chaohong, Yunnan 3:52:18 - 7:05
5. Xu Faguang, Mongolia 3:54:25 - 9:12
6. Zhao Jiangu, Gansu 4:00:31 - 15:18
7. Hou Yang, Liaoning 4:04:28 - 19:15
8. Kang Duo, Chongqing 4:06:03 - 20:50
9. Alatan Gadasu, Mongolia 4:11:12 - 25:59
10. Zhang Jiawei, Liaoning 4:11:12 - 25:59