General view of the women's 20km - 2006 World Cup (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Cheboksary, Russia

A sea of spectators await race walkers in Cheboksary

If ever people-power played a part in getting an IAAF World Athletics Series event to its city, it has to be the folk of Cheboksary, Russia, who will enjoy the 23rd IAAF World Race Walking Cup, 10-11 May 2008.

Race walking and athletics fans in general can be forgiven for being unaware of the capital city of Chuvashia, 600km east of Moscow, before it was awarded the European Cup of Race Walking in 2003.

Even officials making the trip had to spin the globe before putting their fingers on the spot.

But the people in the city on the banks of the River Volga made sure they would never be forgotten afterwards.

Race walkers have long gotten used to the idea of thin crowds. Actually, ‘crowds’ has not always been the right word when think of echoing Olympic or World Championship stadiums as a spartan handful cheer 50km race walkers out, and sadly, sometimes back in to the arena.

But in 2003, anywhere between 50,000 and 75,000 spectators, depending on whose reports you read, lined the course in Cheboksary sometimes four deep to cheer on competitors.

A changing mindset

It changed the way of thinking on hosting big sporting events in Russia – much to the delight of Vyacheslav Krasnov.

The then Chuvashia Minister for Sport, who among his many titles is also an IAAF Race Walking Committee Member, proved a point that May Day. Namely, you don’t need Moscow to guarantee big crowds and top sporting organisation in the name of Mother Russia.

The event was praised by the head of European Athletics and other foreign visitors, and made sure the capital’s sporting chiefs took note.

Krasnov persuaded Moscow’s top sporting brass to push on for the World Cup, and it was no surprise when Cheboksary got the nod for the big one in walking the following November.

Was it easy?

The 56-year-old raises his eyes to heaven when the question is translated to him, which answers it in anybody’s language.

But Krasnov enlarges on the task of shredding miles of red tape to provide what in essence is an Olympics dress rehearsal with a Russian flavour.

“Nothing is easy, when you are trying to change a mindset that often has Moscow seeing itself as the centre of things – and the provinces are way out there,” he said.

“But the European Cup was a huge success by anybody’s standards, especially as there were so many people watching a walking competition.”

“In all the time I’ve been involved in the sport I can’t remember so many watching the sport without any other athletics events around it.”

Two centres of race walking

However, Cheboksary and its neighbour Saransk to the south did, and still do, have a head start on the rest of Russia.

Apart from a few splendid isolations, the two cities have creamed the best of the country’s walkers while sustaining a long ‘friendly rivalry’, as Krasnov puts it, to lay claim as the country’s centre of walking.

Saransk hosted the IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final last September.

And Cheboksary has the presence of two of the top female walkers for the last decade.

Yelena Nikolayeva and Olimpiada Ivanova have won 14 major medals between them, including Olympic gold, two silvers, three IAAF World Championships and a European Championship – and that’s not counting a fistful of team medals.

Imagine as a citizen of Cheboksary you’ve never had a chance to see your heroines in the flesh racing in top competition. You too, might have strolled out to the European Cup course on the quayside to catch the action.

For the second IAAF World Race Walking Cup in a row, competitors in the five races – two at junior level – will be able to take in a watery view. Two years ago, the Spanish port of La Coruna had a similar quayside setting.

But come to think of it, if Cheboksary turns out in force again as is likely, it may be that racers will see nothing of the real water because it will be masked by a sea of spectators cheering them from first to last around the 2km loop.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF