Chen Ding of China celebrates as he wins gold in the 20km Race Walk at the London 2012 Olympics (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Taicang, China

Olympic heroes Chen and Qieyang looking for home victories in Taicang

The IAAF Race Walking Challenge returns to Taicang, China, on Friday (1). It’s the third successive time this competition has been held and needless to say, Chinese athletes will be the favourites in both races.

In 2011 and 2012 China grabbed top-three places in all races, and the course has proven to be a fast one. On the men’s side, the winner of both previous editions, Asian record-holder Wang Zhen, is not competing this time, but home fans will not be left without replacements.

The men’s 20km walk is highlighted by the London Olympic champion Chen Ding, who set his personal best 1:17:40 for the second place here last year, finishing only four seconds behind Wang’s Asian record 1:17:36. In London of course they switched places with Chen grabbing the gold medal and Wang winning the bronze.

The strongest opponent to 20-year-old Chen will be fellow countryman Cai Zelin, 21, who finished fourth in the 20km at the Olympics and was third here last year in a 1:18:47 personal best. Other top Chinese names in the race are Li Jianbo, a 50km specialist who finished seventh in London at that distance, and 18-year-old Li Tianlei.

Australia’s Jared Tallent, a three-time Olympic medallist, returns to Taicang for the third successive 20km race. The 28-year-old, who has won two straight Olympic silvers at the 50km distance, was fifth here last year and fourth in 2011. Another Australian, Luke Adams, was 10th in this race last year clocking a season’s best 1:22:50 and will be looking to better that performance on Friday.

Also competing here will be 36-year-old Belarusian veteran Ivan Trotski, who competed in both the 20km and 50km races at the Olympics, and the top Indian race walker Kolothum Thodi Irfan, who finished in a surprising 10th place in London 2012, setting a 1:20:21 national record.

Qieyang hopes to delight home crowd

On the women’s side, the winner of the previous two races here, Liu Hong, is also missing. Liu set an Asian record of 1:25:46 here last year and finished in fourth place at the Olympics in London. But the duo that finished second and third here last season will be competing and have already proven their quality.

With all Chinese eyes on Liu in London, 22-year-old Qieyang Shenjie came and surprised everyone by taking the bronze medal and crushing Liu’s short-lived Asian record with 1:25:16, just 14 seconds behind Olympic champion Yelena Lashmanova of Russia.

Qieyang’s previous personal best was set here in Taicang last year when she finished third, clocking 1:27:04. This will be her first 20km race since the Olympic Games.

She will not be alone at the top though as 19-year-old Lu Xiuzhi will kick-start her first senior season in this race. She was second in Taicang last year ahead of Qieyang, clocking an Asian junior record of 1:27:01. In London, aged just 18 at the time, Lu finished sixth to prove she can also compete in major championships.

The best challenge to these two might come from Gao Ni, who set a 1:28:06 personal best here last season for a fourth-place finish. Other Chinese athletes to consider are Sun Huanhuan, who was sixth here last year, and 2012 Asian champion Ding Huiqin, who clocked her personal best of 1:30:14 at the Asian Championships in Nomi, Japan, last March.

They will be joined by Australians Regan Lamble and Rachel Tallent, Japan’s Tomomi Maekawa, Gaurav Kumari of India and Korean Weon Aseas-Byeol.

Mirko Jalava for the IAAF