World champion Liu Hong has been unbeaten since March 2015, making the world record-holder the big favourite for the women’s 20km race walk in Rio.
She was recently stripped of her gold medal from the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 after a positive test for higenamine and subsequently served a reduced one-month sanction.
Nevertheless, her performance in the Italian capital earlier this year perhaps wasn’t as dominant as many had expected it would be.
Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez matched Liu for the first half of the race, and her closing 5km section was just four seconds slower than her Chinese rival. She was rewarded with an area record of 1:26:17 and will head to Rio with genuine hopes of a medal.
Of the 10 Olympic medals won by Mexican athletes to date, nine of those have come from men’s race-walking events. Gonzalez will be keen to add to that tally by winning would what be Mexico’s first Olympic medal in a women’s race-walking event.
Qieyang Shenjie took a surprise silver in London four years ago. She finished second at this year’s World Race Walking Team Championships with her second-fastest time ever and was then runner-up to Liu in La Coruna three weeks later.
Now established as one of the world’s best race walkers, if Qieyang were to make it on to the podium in Rio, it would be much less of a surprise than it was in London in 2012.
Lu Xiuzhi finished just 0.26 behind compatriot Liu at last year’s World Championships, but the 22-year-old hasn’t been in the same kind of form this year, finishing a distant second in China’s Olympic Trials race and then sixth in Rome. Nevertheless, she also has the ability to challenge for a medal.
When it comes to the host nation’s medal hopes, Erica de Sena isn’t one of the athletes to have been spoken about too much in the build-up to the Games, but the relative lack of attention – and pressure – could work in the Brazilian’s favour.
In recent years, she has broken the South American record on four occasions, most recently with her 1:27:18 clocking to finish third in Rome. Last year she took the silver medal at the Pan American Games and finished sixth at the World Championships, but she is a much improved athlete since then and will have the fervant support of the home crowd.
Eight years after taking the Olympic bronze medal in Beijing, 36-year-old Italian Elisa Rigaudo showed she is still a serious contender when clocking 1:28:03 to finish fourth in Rome three months ago. Rigaudo has finished in the top six at the past three Olympic Games and it wouldn’t be a surprise if she maintained that record in Rio.
Meanwhile, compatriot Eleonora Giorgi has some demons to banish after being disqualified at the 2015 World Championships and in front of family and friends at this year’s IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships.
Giorgi holds the Italian record at 1:26:17 and could figure near the front of the pack in Rio if she can recapture that sort of form, hopefully without without being disqualified.
Others who could finish among the top 10 include Portuguese duo Ana Cabecinha and Ines Henriques, Spain’s Raquel Gonzalez and Beatriz Pascual, and Colombia’s Sandra Arenas.
This event is also the final race in the 2016 IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF