Liu Hong waited until the final few metres of the women's 20km race walk to make her decisive move, winning gold in 1:28:35.
Due in no small part to the high temperatures in the early afternoon in Pontal, it took a while for the real racing to begin. A large pack went through 4km in 18:28, but it had reduced to 15 women by 6km, which was reached in 36:25.
Most of the main medal contenders were in that pack, including world champion Liu Hong, world silver medallist Lu Xiuzhi, World Race Walking Team Championships winner Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez, Italy’s Eleonora Giorgi and Brazil’s Erica de Sena.
The lead pack, led by Liu and Gonzalez, went through the half-way point in a relatively modest 45:24. It soon became clear that the main protagonists wouldn’t let the second half be as slow as the first.
As was the case at last year’s IAAF World Championships and this year’s IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships, Italy’s Eleonora Giorgi was disqualified for loss of contact. The national record-holder had to abandon her hopes of an Olympic medal just after the 12km point.
The leaders, meanwhile, were cranking up the pace. With each of the three previous two-kilometre laps being covered just within nine minutes, the sixth one was covered in 8:47. After Giorgi stepped off the road, it left just five women at the front: Liu, Lu, Gonzalez, De Sena, and Italy’s Antonella Palmisano.
China’s 2012 Olympic silver medallist Qieyang Shenjie regained contact with the leaders and took them through 14km in 1:03:01 before throwing in a lap of 8:42 – the quickest of the race up until that point.
With Liu on one shoulder and Lu on the other, Gonzalez then pushed pace and they managed to drop Palmisano. Qieyang was the next to fall back, leaving just three women out in front.
Liu and Gonzalez increased the tempo once more, and it was eventually enough to break Lu as she resigned herself to third place. It was only in the final 40 metres that Liu dug in and strode clear of Gonzalez, winning in 1:28:35 to take her third global title after covering the final two-kilometre circuit in 8:11.
Gonzalez finished second in 1:28:37. Mexico has previously won nine Olympic medals in men’s race-walking events, but this is their first in a women’s race-walking event.
Lu took bronze in 1:28:42, while Palmisano passed a tiring Qieyang in the closing stages to finish fourth in a season’s best of 1:29:03, improving one place on her finish from last year’s World Championships.
For the fifth global championships in a row, Ana Cabecinha made it into the top eight. The Portuguese race walker finished sixth in 1:29:23. Brazilian hope Erica de Sena was seventh in 1:29:29, one place lower than her position in Beijing last year.
Competing in her fourth Olympics, Italy’s 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Elisa Rigaudo, now 36, finished 11th in 1:31:04.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF