The third leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge 2005 takes place on Saturday 23 April in Cixi City, in Zhejiang province, China, and will witness the best ever Race Walking fields assembled in the country.**
In 2004 this competition was held in Kunshan a month later than this year’s event, and both champions have announced they will attempt to defend their titles in Cixi.
Han Yucheng, the men's winner in 2004, has already proved himself in Europe this season. After lowering his Asian record in the 50km to 3:36:20 in Nanning on 27 February, he travelled to Slovakia and won in an impressive 3:40:30 at the EAA race in Dudince (26 March).
The women’s winner in 2004 Song Hongjuan, who is still only 20 years old, also expects to defend her title after a good start this season. She was beaten (third – 1:28:26) in the Chinese Championships on 25 February, but then won in Dudince (1:28:37), and took second place in the Rio Maior IAAF Challenge on 2 April recording her third sub-1:30 effort of 2005 (1:29:01).
Although Han Yucheng faded to 32nd place in Rio Maior 20km with a time over 1:30, he will still be the favourite on Saturday. Prior to Rio Maior he had walked two 50km races in less than a month with a 20km as well in the Chinese Championships in Nanning in February.
Han Yucheng is the best pick for win, but he only comes to the competition as the 7th fastest Chinese walker this season for as usual the National Games, the 10th edition of which will be held in Nanjing in October, have done their usual trick in raising the overall standard of results. Chinese Race Walking is good even without these Games, but every four years the walkers fight even harder than usual.
21-year-old Zhu Hongjun, who won the 2003 National Championships 20km as a 19-year-old and was second in 2004, had to settle for 17th place this year in Nanning. Zhu Hongjun, however this time bounced back in Europe to record a personal best of 1:18:37 in Dudince, enough for a win there. Zhu Hongjun was disqualified in Rio Maior, but in Cixi he will have a point to prove if he wants to be included in the Chinese team for the World Championships in August - he was 6th in the Olympic Games in Athens 2004.
A surprise card in Cixi could be 22-year-old Lu Ronghua, who recorded a big personal best of 1:18:50 finishing just behind Zhu Hongjun in Dudince. Lu Ronghua, the bronze medallist from the 2002 World Junior Championships in Kingston, was only 8th in the National Championships, but his performance in Europe was much better. Lu Ronghua was also sixth in the Rio Maior 20km and has also walked a 3:45:05 50km this season.
There are a couple more experienced names who have to be considered. Yu Chaohong and Liu Yunfeng.
Yu Chaohong, who narrowly missed a medal in the Olympic Games last year during the last kilometre of the 50km finishing fourth, is the national champion in the 20km this season. Yu Chaohong walked a fast 1:19:08 in Nanning and took third in both Dudince (1:19:29) and Rio Maior (1:19:39). Yu Chaohong, a 50km specialist is easily the most steady walker in the race with three fast races already this season.
Liu Yunfeng, although still only 25 years old, walked 1:21:12 as a 16-year-old in 1996. He also took the 4th place in the Sydney World Junior Championships of that same year and then bettered that performance with a silver in the next Junior Worlds in Annecy 1998. Last season Liu Yunfeng came close to his junior accomplishments taking fifth place in the World Cup 20km in Naumburg and this season he was second in the National Championships in a personal best of 1:19:09. In Dudince he did not finish the race, but was able to set another good performance in Rio Maior, finishing fourth there behind Yu Chaohong in 1:20:10.
With the high standard this season, there could be many more athletes fighting for the win here - in addition there are two more sub-1:20 walkers this season: Pei Chuang was third in the National Championships in 1:19:21, and Cui Zhide fourth in 1:19:34, both will start in Cixi competition.
In women's Race Walking at the moment, three walkers are way ahead of the others in China. The national champion this year, 19-year-old Jiang Jing has walked 1:27:19, she was also second in the 2004 World Cup in Naumburg. 2000 Olympic champion Wang Liping is still going strong, she was second in Nanning in 1:27:24, with 2003/2004 Champion Song Hongjuan dropping to third place this year in 1:28:26.
Jiang Jing, who will turn 20 during the National Games in October, has already walked five sub-1:30 races during her short career. In addition to her win in Nanning, she was second in Dudince (1:29:31) before a disappointing 14th place in Rio Maior. But she has proven before that she knows how to handle big competitions, in the 2004 World Cup she was very close to the winner Yelena Nikolayeva (RUS). 39-year-old Nikolayeva, the reigning World Champion from Paris 2003, was second in Kunshan last season.
Wang Liping has had a steady start to her season. She was second in the National Championships with the second best time of her career, 1:27:24. The 2000 Olympic champion who also took eighth place in Athens 2004, was third in both Dudince (1:30:16) and Rio Maior (1:30:06) and is always performing well in international competition.
Song Hongjuan, 20 years old, was the best Chinese walker for a couple of seasons, both she has lost ground to Jiang Jing. Still her record in 2005 is very impressive, she was third in Nanning in a season's best of 1:28:26, then won in Dudince (1:28:37) and was second in Rio Maior (1:29:01). She has had a very similar season to that of Yu Chaohong, and is the most balanced of the walkers entering this competition and is also defending her 2004 win from Kunshan.
Mirko Jalava for the IAAF
**there was no news on the foreign entries at the time of writing this preview.