Start of the men's 10Km at the 2010 IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final in Beijing (organisers) © Copyright
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As its silver anniversary approaches, a brief look back at the IAAF Race Walking Cup

Hopefully the bells are silver in Saransk city cathedral when they ring out in honour of the 25th edition of what has become the IAAF World Walking Cup.

The birth of the Cup in 1961 was a kind of consolation prize bestowed on a pushy music-playing journalist.

However, had IAAF officials really called the tune, there would have been a World Championships more than 27 years before the competition we know today started in 1983.

The plan proposed in 1956 was a multi-event affair that included a 20,000m track walk. When the scheme got thrown out – back came the idea of an exclusive Race Walking World Cup, which amazingly got accepted four years down the road.

The man who made music and reported sport stories was Swiss IAAF member Armand Libotte then also on the Race Walking committee, who suggested Lugano to host the first edition.

Libotte was an experienced race organiser to go with his other talents and hosted the popular 100km walk in Lugano.

City officials embraced the idea of a global competition and lent their name to the original men-only competition. The trophy still awarded each time to the men’s winning team in the bi-annual event is the Lugano Cup.  

The concept saw a qualifying competition divided into four groups, with the winners of each invited to Lugano and competition over 20k and 50k.

In the event of a team tie – and don’t you know it? That’s exactly what happened in 1961, the winners would be decided by who had done what in the longer event.

Great Britain was the then walking force to be reckoned with and duly edged out Sweden on countback.

The men’s 20k winner was Ken Matthews, not only successful in defending his title in Italy two years later, but the year after that becoming Britain’s last Olympic walker to win gold.

Incidentally, after nearly 50 years away from the sport, Matthews has returned as president of the British Race Walking Association for 2012.

The next four editions to follow the GB success became the exclusive property of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Russia was second in three with Britain runner-up in 1965 – but the swing to the east was absolute.

There is a documentation and debate to the present day about dubious parts of the GDR training regime, but there was no doubt they produced fantastic walkers. Christophe Hohne scored a hat-trick of wins in the 50k between 1965 and 1970, while Dieter Lindner battled with team-mates Peter Frenkel and Hans-Georg Reimann to outwit the brilliant Russians Vladimir Golubnichiy and Nikolay Smaga with mixed success.

By 1975, women were unofficially contesting a 5k race, with Sweden dominant in the first two events. And in the same way Lugano gave its name to the men’s team trophy, Eschborn became the name on the female gong when the ladies got welcomed into the fold at the German city in 1979.

Co-incidentally, in the same way Britain claimed the first men’s team title 18 years earlier – their women were first on the list of duties for the engraver, with Marion Fawkes just edging out Carol Tyson for individual gold.

But a shift of power in the men’s races also gave the Lugano Trophy fresh impetus.

At Milton Keynes in 1977, the new kids on the block were Mexico appropriately underlining their march to the top in an English town for the future.

Montreal Olympic champion Daniel Bautista headed the rest at 20k, and Raul Gonzales – later to win Olympic gold in 1984 – won the 50k.

It had been a while coming since Mexican army sergeant Jose Pedraza split Golubnichiy and Smaga in the 1968 Olympics, but once there, Mexico along with Italy, who revived a sparkling 20th century pedigree, were never far away from leading walking nations right up to the present day.

It was 1987 when any kind of semi-final qualification was abandoned and the entire world was invited for the finals in New York’s Central Park.

Thirty four men and 23 women’s teams took a bite out of the Big Apple, with the likes of minnows Venezuela, Egypt and the Dominican Republic dipping heels and toes into the walking's big pond now officially known as the IAAF World Walking Cup.

In 1985, the women’s race was extended to 10k, and China were on the scene having won on the Isle of Man. And from there to the present day, they, Russia, Italy and Mexico have gone back and forth taking top honours both individually and as a team in both sexes.

Thankfully, the cartel has been creviced open on occasions by terrific individual walkers.

Simon Baker won the 50k for Australia in 1989; Jesus Angel Garcia in 1997 – and at 42 the Spaniard could still toe the line in Saransk.

Jefferson Perez had a period from Olympic gold in 1996 to 2004 when he was unbeatable at 20k in any competition. In fact, the Ecuadorean had all aficionados agreeing he had one of the smoothest, safest styles of any over the last six decades of World Cup walking.

The women now contest 20k, and it is somewhat fitting on the Cup's silver anniversary that Russian excellence has a rare opportunity to show what it does best in front of a huge audience its own back yard on 12-13 May.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF