Dane Bird-Smith in the 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview London, UK

Preview: men's 20km race walk – IAAF World Championships London 2017

One thing is certain in the men’s 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships: the first two past the post won’t be the first two at last year’s Olympics – although they might be from the same country.

Neither Olympic gold medallist Wang Zhen nor silver medal Cai Zelin have been selected, such is the strength in depth in Chinese race walking.

Instead, Wang Kaihua boasts a world lead and personal best of 1:17:54 set at the Chinese Race Walking Grand Prix in Huangshang on 5 March.

His winning mark is the fifth fastest ever achieved by a Chinese race walker, and as a stunned but grateful race walker who missed Rio said, he was only aiming for a sub-1:19:00 performance. 

Whether the 23-year-old can replicate that groundbreaking walk in London remains to be seen. But Chinese race walkers did just that in 2012 at the Olympics along much the same course.

Chen Ding won then with Wang Zhen in third, behind surprise silver medallist Erick Barrondo, and the latest Wang will be pushed all the way by a third Wang, Rui in this case, as well as 20-year-old Jin Xianggian who stopped the clock in 1:19:12, also in Huangshan.

Hoping to crack China are three Europeans – either in top form, or with pedigree from the past.

Germany’s Christopher Linke is in the form of his life and set a 1:18:59 personal best in Podebrady in April, and returned to the Czech Republic spa town a month later to lift the European Cup crown.

Defending champion Miguel Angel Lopez was second on the day, and so far has kept a lowish profile. But he is the man for the big occasion, and this is as big as it gets outside the Olympics.

But the huge roars await the ears of Tom Bosworth, and it might be the difference between sixth at the 2016 Olympics and a medal.

The Great Britain home favourite set a world best of 5:31:08 for the seldom-held mile race walk on home turf at the London leg of the IAAF Diamond League at the beginning of this month, and as he earlier proclaimed, it’s not a question of going fast enough, it’s being able to sustain a relentless pace for another 11-plus miles. 

The ‘12th man’ as he put it will be a massive support, but there are others who want to dampen the home crowd.

Injured world record-holder Yusuke Suzuki is absent, but Japan have three top performers, two of whom have season's bests within 1:19:00.

Eiki Takahashi and Isamu Fujisawa finished one and two at their national championships in Kobe in February. Takahashi notched a sharp 1:18:18, and Fujisawa five seconds behind. Daisuke Matsunaga got the third Japanese vest by crossing first in the Asian Championships at Nomi in March.

Dane Bird-Smith is another gold medal contender. The Australian celebrated his 26th birthday on 15 July following a worthy Olympic bronze medal in Rio, and continued where he left off to breeze home in February’s first IAAF Challenge race in Adelaide for a 1:19:37 clocking – 1:23 ahead of South Africa’s Lebogang Shange.

Others who should figure at the front end are Korea’s Kim Hyunsub, Spain’s Álvaro Martín, and Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom.

But the entire field will tell you, form on the day, especially as 60-plus race walkers vary by no more than five minutes on season’s times, is everything. 

It will be a major surprise, however, if the three medallists don’t come from those already mentioned.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF