Xiangdong Bo of China celebrates winning the men's 10,000m Race Walk in Beijing (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Chinese walkers on the road to Cheboksary have Beijing medals in sight

The sight of Chinese walkers charging along up front in the early part of a men's race has been a staple for 20 years.

Not so common are the same athletes battling it out for honours at the end.

It seems amazing that in a country of more than a billion there hasn’t been a solitary men’s Olympic or IAAF World Championship medal.

Aiming at Olympic breakthrough in Beijing

And yet, sporadic success in the IAAF World Walking Cup as well as super-fast times in past Chinese legs of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge gives more than a hint of unfulfilled potential.

Shande Yang thinks that’s going to change in this year’s Olympics, although the only sight the 2008 Challenge will get of the hosts will be on home turf in Beijing for round three of the series on 18/19 April.

The respected IAAF Race Walking Committee member and judge believes familiar surrounds could be the decider for a country tipped to top the Olympic medal table.

He said: “It’s difficult to answer simply why China hasn’t had a men’s medal up till now. But, in the past there have been gold medals for a Greek in Greece; the Spanish in Spain and hopefully now the Chinese in Beijing.”

One thing’s for sure, the first three across the line in the Challenge races will get a second chance to show what they can do on the same course in August.

The Beijing leg of the series will be the unofficial Olympics dress rehearsal and Chinese trial for the big summer show on a tree-lined 2km loop in Olympic Park – just outside the so-called ‘Birds Nest’ National Stadium.

Shande reckons there are so many potential Chinese winners he’s reluctant to tip the first three.

It’s either that or diplomacy demanding no-one gets a verbal leg-up from a major figure in Chinese walking.

Li Gaobo top of the list

But Shande does suggest looking no further than the 2007 rankings will produce the likely suspects. And as far as that goes, Li Gaobo must surely start as favourite for not only the Challenge race – but the Olympic 20km as well.

He might not be a good traveller, but the 18-year-old is obviously a home-loving boy.

He shot to prominence, and ‘shot’ is wholly appropriate in this case, when he walked a world-age best 1:18:07 in the 2005 Challenge race in the remote southern city of Cixi.

However, just to prove it was no fluke, Li did it again a year later in Yangzhou just 10 seconds slower than his remarkable debut.

In the last Chinese leg of the series in 2007 Li was right behind World silver medallist Francisco Fernandez in a still nippy 1:19:03, but any change of national air has so far blown Li off course.

He was DQ’d in the 2006 Junior 10km of the World Walking Cup, and he finished an unlucky 13th in Osaka’s World Championships last August – more than seven minutes outside his best.

Yucheng Han doesn’t appear to suffer quite the same when he picks up his suitcase. He at least got a bronze in the same World Walking Cup when Li was disqualified.

But Yucheng too hasn’t wholly cut it on his travels.

His 3:39:10 for 50km, followed 24 hours later by 1:19:30 for the shorter distance, is one of the unsung feats of modern walking. But Yucheng achieved that stunning double in the 2004 series race in Guangzhou, and yet trailed in a lowly fourth-last in Osaka’s 20km seven months ago.

Women's history looks brighter

Thankfully, Chinese women don’t have the same burden as the men.

They made sure of a name on the Olympic roll of honour in the very first race. And since Chen Yueling’s triumph in Barcelona 15 years ago, another gold, two bronzes and three World Championship medals has always seen them there or thereabouts at the majors.

In the 2007 Challenge race in Shenzhen, Liu Hong won by a margin, but it was third place Jiang Jing from Jiangsu that rung bells for future success. A previous World Cup winner and one of the few Chinese to walk well in the Series outside her own country, it says something for the pedigree of a walker still just 22.

At the moment she and 100 others are at three major training camps in China, one of them at altitude, with all eyes focused on the Challenge Race in Beijing.

The prestige of winning that will be only half the battle for nine successful walkers. They get to do it all again at the biggest sporting show on Earth.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF