Zhen Wang of China on his way to winning the 20km race in Saransk (Getty Images) © Copyright

World’s crème gathers in La Coruña – IAAF Race Walking Challenge - PREVIEW

The 'Gran Premio Cantones de Marcha’, the Spanish leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge 2012, takes place on Saturday (9) in La Coruña, a city which has since 1987 annually hosted this world class competition.

The events scheduled to be contested are 20km Race Walks for both men and women. The northwest Spanish coastal city hosted a successful IAAF World Race Walking Cup back in 2006 in addition to last year’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge final and offers the competitors an ideal, flat 1km-long circuit on which to get fast times while the spectators also benefit since they have the chance to witness a star-studded field establish plenty of times.

Wang Zhen, the outstanding favourite - Men’s event

The men’s event offers a vast array of talent headed by the in-form Chinese Wang Zhen. The 20-year-old is a rising star who just missed the podium at the Daegu Worlds last year when he finished fourth some 16 seconds behind the bronze medallist. Zhen startled the world earlier this season by setting an impressive Area record of 1:17:36 to win the Taicang IAAF permit last 30 March and proved it was no fluke on the occasion of the World Cup in Saransk last month where he took top honours in a fine 1:19:13 clocking.

Those two wins have propelled Zhen to the top at the 2012 IAAF Challenge scoring thanks to a 32-point tally. The Chinese prodigy should keep nice memories from La Coruña as he already came runner-up at last year’s Challenge final over 10kms.

Zhen will be accompanied by up to four fellow Chinese in the guise of Yu Wei, holder of a PB of 1:20:06 set in Taicang this season, Chen Zhongliang (1:22:30), while Li Jianbo and Si Tianfeng will be making their opening 20km Walk outings of the season.

Theoretically, the main threat for Zhen should come from Colombia’s reigning World 20km bronze medallist Luis Fernando López, although the 33-year-old could not finish better than 51th at the recent World Cup clocking a modest 1.26:14.

Poland’s Rafal Augustyn returns to the 20km distance after his fine performance in Saransk where he took 10th over the 50km distance timed at 3:49:53 while Japan’s Hiroki Arai (1:21:10) is another walker not to be discounted for podium purposes. Watch out too for the Italian duo of Giorgio Rubino (SB of 1:20:10 for 4th at the IAAF challenge in Taicang) and Matteo Giupponi (1:20:58).

Spanish hopes will rest with Miguel Ángel López (PB of 1:21:41), Benjamín Sánchez (1:20:48) and the evergreen Jesús Ángel García Bragado, the 2009 World 50km bronze medallist who will turn 43(!) next October and is a former World 50km champion as back as in Stuttgart '93.

Other entrants include the German pair of Maik Berger and Carsten Schmidt.

Women’s 20km – Can the Spaniards stop Liu?

The women’s line-up promise a thrilling Chinese-Spanish battle. The Asian power’s squad will be formed by Hong Liu, Huanhuan Sun and Huiquin Ding. The former will kick-off as the woman to beat after her impressive win in Taicang with her 1:25:46 Area Record in her only outing this season. As for her compatriots, Sun posted an SB of 1:30:21 for sixth on this occasion while Ding holds a similar 1:30:14 time this year.

Meanwhile, the local triumvirate is also of a high calibre. María José Poves has made a major breakthrough this season at the age of 34. She first took the Spanish title thanks to a massive career best of 1:28:15 in Pontevedra last 4 March and more recently, Poves came a surprise third in a fine 1:29:10 at the World Cup.

Her compatriot Beatriz Pascual – a renowned specialist who finished sixth at both the Beijing Olympics and the Berlin Worlds – will try to match her brilliant performance from 2010 when she took a fantastic win here. On her current form, Pascual had to settle for third in the quality Spanish champs behind Poves and Vasco timed at 1:30:29 but the 30-year-old managed a fine victory at the IAAF permit in Rio Maior when she clocked 1:31:03 on 14 April. Pascual also showed good fitness on her last appearance at the World Cup with a 1:30:46 performance.

However, the most experienced walker in contention is María Vasco, the 2000 Olympic and 2007 World bronze medallist. With the Spanish berths for London Olympics at stake in La Coruña, Vasco should be eager to secure her fifth (!) Olympic presence. The 36-year-old grabbed silver at the Spanish champs in Pontevedra thanks a 1:28:54 time but she then failed to finish in Saransk.

Portugal’s current leader of the IAAF Challenge, Ines Henriques, will also be on show to compete for the fourth time over the distance in 2012, her season’s best being 1:31:32 when she was third in Rio Maior last April.

Other dangerous outsiders are Ireland’s Olive Loughnane (SB of 1:31:32), Poland’s Agnieszka Dygacz (1:31:40), Spain Julia Tacaks (1:32:05) and the German pair Melanie Seeger (1:33:24) and Sabine Krantz (1:32:25).

The course records are held by Spain’s 'Paquillo’ Fernández thanks to a 1:17:52 clocking back in 2005, and Ryta Turava of Belarus, at 1:26.27 when winning the World Cup in 2006.

Weather forecasters predict temperatures in the 16-18ºC range by the time of the competition and a very high likelihood of rain.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF