Left to right Nathan Deakes (AUS), Jefferson Perez (ECU) and Robert Korzeniowski (POL) - the medallists of the men's 20km in Naumburg (Getty Images) © Copyright
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The evolution of the IAAF World Race Walking Cup, and its strong Mexican connection

Race Walking tends to appeal to individuals, nations even, with the mindset of the dogged and determined. The underdog - passionate, defiant, yet unassuming.

While, in this toughest of endurance tests, success requires inspiration from within, more often than not, supreme triumph occurs when a group of athletes share the same passion, often inspired by a visionary leader.

For historic reasons, Mexico shares this passion, arising from the Olympics Games, and the IAAF World Race Walking Cup, a competition that was formed from one man’s vision for breaking down barriers between people.

Early events

With race walking’s popularity in Britain and the United States at the turn of the last century it was part of a multi-event competition in the 1904 Olympics, as two track races in the 1906 Interim Olympics, then as full events in the 1908 London Games.

Judging controversies there and in ensuing Games left race walking vulnerable to changes to the programme, indeed the rules were standardised by the IAAF after walking was dropped from the 1928 Olympics.

The walk distances were set at 20 and 50km from the 1956 Games, but then politics intervened. The Swiss, among other nations, initially decided to boycott Melbourne in protest at Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising. After protests, the National Olympic Committee voted to participate, but too late for many athletes to travel.

Armando Libotte, a Swiss 50km champion and sports writer, made it to Melbourne and there conceived of the idea of an alternative competition to be held more in “a spirit of friendship without the troublesome interference of politics”.

He made a proposal the next year to the IAAF Race Walking Committee and in 1961 the first ‘Lugano Cup’ (named from its venue) was organised by the IAAF.

The biennial event, from 1985 known as the IAAF World Race Walking Cup, is now approaching its 24th occasion and will attract the best race walkers from across the globe.

Inspired IAAF to hold it’s own World Championships

At Lugano in 1961, and two years later just over the border in Varese, Italy, the 20km races were won by Great Britain’s Ken Matthews.

Such wins were taken in their stride by Britain at that time. The European and future Olympic champion’s main recollection of Varese (as an engineer from the similarly industrial English Midlands) was walking round the local motorcycle plant in the race.   

From the mid 1960s, results reflected developments in athletics with East German and Russian walkers taking every individual gold medal in the 20 and 50km competitions.

In 1979 the first ‘Eschborn Cup’ for women was held, in conjunction with the men’s Lugano Cup finals in Eschborn, West Germany.

As the 1976 Montreal Olympics programme was limited to one walk, the IAAF staged a replacement ‘World Championship’ for those that had dedicated their athletics careers to the 50km event. This precedent, and the growth of Armando Libotte’s initiative, then helped the IAAF decide to hold its own World Championships in Athletics.

Mexico’s emergence

In 1977, in the unlikely setting of Milton Keynes, Great Britain, Mexican race walkers transformed the World Cup, then dominated for a decade.

The Inception for this came a decade earlier. Jerzy Hausleber - a Polish race walker - arrived in Mexico on a sports exchange, and in May 1966 was appointed by the President of the Olympic Committee to boost the chances of the host nation’s athletes for the Mexico City Games.

His coaching inspired José Pedraza to produce the moment of the Games for the hosts, only narrowly missing out on snatching the gold medal in the 20km walk - his silver being Mexico’s sole athletics medal.

This Mexican’s struggle in the finishing straight, on an equal footing with athletes from the most powerful nations, became emblematic of the desired spirit of the nation.

Daniel Bautista, Ernesto Canto, and Raúl González, all achieved ultimate Olympic glory under Hausleber in the 1970s and 1980s, plus Carlos Mercenario won silver at Barcelona in 1992.

Mercenario holds a joint record three wins in six appearances in World Cups. Aged just 19, in New York’s Central Park in 1987, he was inspired to overtake the Olympic champion Ernesto Canto to take the 20km title in a world best time.

Four years later in San José, California, Mercenario benefited from one of the most memorable incidents in any World Cup at the climax of the men’s 50km.

On the back straight of the final lap of a race long battle with Andrey Perlov, the Russian wouldn’t accept disqualification from Chief Judge Gary Westerfield, and steamrollered past.

With Mercenario the real leader, the race to the line became between Perlov and the judge. Westerfield sprinted, and in front of an amazed grandstand intervened just in time with DQ paddle and a blocking tackle that wouldn't have looked much out of place on an American Football field!

Seconds later, Mercenario broke the tape with glee - also in a then event record.

In Chihuahua, Mercenario will be acting in an official capacity, liaising between the Organizing Committee and CONADE (Comisión Nacional de Cultura Física y Deporte) for whom he is coordinator of elite athletes.

Considered the ‘Father of Mexican Race Walking’, Jerzy Hausleber continues as an authority in coaching, as recently as December presenting a paper to a coaching conference, in Puebla.

‘Continuity and consistency in training loads, continuous and progressive increase of training and adequate planning and definition of goals with assessment and analysis of the process’ are his key principles. Modestly, he indicated that “the success of athletes does not emerge solely from the work of the coach”.

Science will play a part, but the motivation of race walkers who will triumph at the 24th IAAF World Race Walking Cup Chihuahua on 15 and 16 May, will likely be a shared passion.

Certainly, on the streets of the city, there will be noisy cries of “Meh-Hi-Co” from a nation passionate about re-asserting its place in race walking history.

Tim Watt for the IAAF