A tibia injury at the start of the year threatened to derail Matej Toth’s 2016 campaign, but after a good block of training in Italy, the world champion is said to be back to full fitness.
The Slovak race walker has said that he is in similar form to last year, when he produced the third-fastest time in history to win on home soil at the IAAF World Race Walking Challenge meeting in Dudince before taking the world title in Beijing.
He also has a great chance of winning Slovakia’s first Olympic medal in athletics since the nation became independent in 1993.
But Toth is just one third of what looks set to be an intriguing three-way battle.
World record-holder Yohann Diniz is back in shape, having missed most of 2015 with an injury. The French race walker leads this year’s world list with 3:37:48 and will be hoping to finally earn his first Olympic medal; he failed to finish in 2008 and was disqualified in 2012.
Diniz and Toth last met at the 2014 European Championships where Diniz broke the world record with 3:32:33 and Toth crossed the line four minutes later to take silver. But Toth performed better than Diniz at the 2009 and 2013 World Championships and at the 2012 Olympics.
Defending champion Jared Tallent was denied his moment of glory at the time of the London 2012 Olympic Games and only received his gold medal after Sergey Kirdyapkin was banned for a doping offence. Having been denied several medals for similar reasons in the past, the Australian won’t want to let anyone get in the way of his title defence.
Tallent had been set to contest the 20km at the start of the athletics programme in Rio, but after recently aggravating an old hamstring injury in training, he has decided to skip the shorter event as a precautionary measure.
China will be represented by Wang Zhendong, winner of their Olympic Trials race with a PB of 3:41:02, 2004 Olympian Han Yucheng, and Yu Wei, who finished seventh at last year’s World Championships.
Wang will be making his global championships debut, while Han has a history of failing to finish major races. Yu could therefore be China’s best bet of a medal in the 50km.
Japanese duo Takayuki Tanii and Hirooki Arai finished third and fourth respectively in Beijing last August. After being disqualified in the 50km in 2004 and in the 20km in 2008, and failing to finish the 50km in 2012, Tanii will be hoping for a more prosperous Olympic experience at what will be his fourth Games.
Ecuador’s Andres Chocho and Canada’s Evan Dunfee will both be doubling up in Rio, and their best chances of a medal are in the longer event.
Chocho set a 50km area record of 3:42:57 at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Juarez, Mexico, and followed it with a 20km PB of 1:20:07 when finishing sixth at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome three months ago.
Dunfee, meanwhile, set a Canadian record of 3:43:45 last December in what was just his fifth race at the distance.
Spain’s world 20km race walk champion Miguel Angel Lopez will also be doubling up, but his primary focus will be on the shorter event, which comes first in the Olympic programme.
When 46-year-old compatriot Jesus Angel Garcia takes to the startline in Rio, he will be making his seventh Olympic appearance, a record number for a man and tying the outright record set by sprinter Merlene Ottey.
Ireland’s 2013 world champion Robert Heffernan, Ukraine’s Igor Glavan and Poland’s Rafal Augustyn can also be expected to challenge for a podium finish.
This event is also the final race in the 2016 IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF