Athens GreeceThe Legend, Mr Robert Korzeniowski added a wonderful fourth Olympic gold medal to his tally which already included gold medals from the 20km in Atlanta 1996 and the historical double 20km/50km from Sydney 2000.
The 36-year-old Pole who is by far the most successful race walker in history took a commanding win in this morning’s 50km race walk in 3:38:46 his third best time ever after his World record breaking performances at the European Championships in Munich 2002 and Paris 2003 World Championships.
Korzeniowski came home more than four seconds ahead of Russia’s World record holder Denis Nizhegorodov who had bettered Korzeniowski’s mark when winning the national championships in June.
Fourth at last year’s World Championships, Aleksey Voyevodin also of Russia managed to grab the bronze medal with a tremendous finish overtaking China’s Yu Caohong just before entering the stadium. The Russian clocked 3:43:34 to the Chinese’s 3:43:45.
Korzeniowski wanted to mark the end of his illustrious career with an imposing performance at the Athens Olympic Games and not only did the Pole win the most coveted of all medals but he did it with courage, passion and style.
In the leading pack since the very first stages of this gruelling event Korzeniowski was left alone in the lead when 2 hours and 25 minutes into the race Australia’s Nathan Deakes, the 20km bronze medal winner here in Athens, was shown the red card.
From then on it was Korzeniowski all the way. At 35 kilometres which Korzeniowski reached in 2:32:12, he already had a 30-second lead over Nizhegorodov and a further 22 seconds over Caohong who was still comfortably in medal contention.
At this point, Voyevodin was in fourth 13 seconds behind the Chinese with Jesus Angel Garcia of Spain, Aigars Fadejevs of Latvia, Roman Magdziarczyk, another Pole, and 1996 20km Olympic champion Jefferson Perez of Ecuador trailing behind. Perez who had a disappointing 20km here in Athens as he could only manage fourth was struggling to keep up the pace. He even stopped and it looked like he was going to withdraw but such is the determination of the South American that he resumed walking and eventually finished 12th in a new national record 3:53:04.
Up front Korzeniowski was increasing his lead and coming through the 45th kilometre he was 41 second clear of Nizhegorodov. The Polish champion inspires so much respect that every time he would lap another walker, he was showed the thumbs up by his own competitors. When lapping his compatriot Magdziarczyk the two shook hands in a gesture that said it all.
On the side of the course among the hundredths of loud and cheerful Polish fans, Athanasía Tsoumeléka, the 22-year-old Greek who won the Women’s 20km Walk earlier in the week was taking snap shots of Korzeniowski passing by.
Although there were only a few spectators inside the Olympic stadium - all the fans had gathered along the 2km loop course - Korzeniowski was greeted with a standing ovation. His arms up in the air, a Polish flag in his mouth, the Pole crossed the finish line for the last time in his competitive career.
He is now part of history.
“This is my fourth gold medal and the sweetest of all. The one I’ve wanted the most, the one I’ve worked the hardest for, the one I deserve the most,” repeated Korzeniowski in at least four different languages.
“I am so happy. I am also a little bit surprised by the time because I wasn’t pushing too hard. I was just controlling the race, controlling the Russians mainly and making sure no-one would catch up with me.”
“The Russian took too many risks when setting such a tough pace so early on in the race. I wandered whether or not I should follow and stay with him and then I looked at my stop watch and saw I was on schedule with my plans so I just stuck with him.”
24-year-old Nizhegorodov did take a risk too many today and almost lost his silver medal because of it. In the last three kilometres the Russian was just a shadow of himself and could barely put a step in front of the other. He dramatically slowed down, lost his technique and it looked like he wouldn’t hold on to the finish.
But the Russian had accumulated enough ground to eventually make it and finish second. He collapsed to the floor just metres after the finish and it took him several long minutes to recover his senses. He had covered the last five kilometres in 25:30 while his fast finishing compatriot Voyevodin covered the same distance in 22:24!
Caohong who had been in third position since the 15th kilometre mark was also paying for his early race efforts and had to be content with a disappointing fourth.
Amazingly three Poles finished in the top seven with Magdziarczyk in sixth and Grzegorz Sudol in seventh.
A true national hero, Korzeniowski was congratulated by the President of State Aleksaner Kwasniewski who was waiting for his most illustrious athlete by the finish line.
“Those were my last steps as a competitive walker that you saw out there on the track but I will most definitely stay in the world of athletics. I love the sport too much to just let go of it.”
“Right now I am thinking about writing a book on Race Walking,” said a delighted Korzeniowski.
And one can be sure that the four-time Olympic champion has a lot of stories to tell.