Massimo Stano wins the 2020 Olympic 20km race walk title in Sapporo (© Getty Images)
Propelled by a relentless final kilometre charge, Massimo Stano held off Japanese favourites Koki Ikeda and Toshikazu Yamanishi to take the 20km race walk title in Sapporo on Thursday (5), the third Olympic crown for Italy in this event and the third gold medal for his nation at these Olympic Games.
While Stano has been a regular on the race walk circuit for the better part of the last decade, the 29-year-old didn't have a single senior regional, continental or global medal to his name until he crossed the finish line this afternoon in this city's central Odori Park, nine seconds clear of Ikeda.
"Every day in my mind, I repeated: 'I am the strongest, I am the strongest', and I was," said Stano, who crossed the finish line sucking his right thumb, a motion to dedicate his victory to his four-month-old daughter, Sophie. "My only strategy was to stay in the front.”
That strategy became apparent in the latter stages of the race, but he kept it close to his chest in the early going, preferring to watch from a significant distance as Wang Kaihua of China and India's Sandeep Kumar made the first big break of the race, the pair moving away from the 30-odd man pack just four kilometres into the contest.
Wang, who was eighth at the 2019 World Championships, arrived in Sapporo as the third-fastest man in history after a 1:16:54 performance in March, so his ambitions to try to steal the race early weren't a surprise. But those of the unheralded Kumar were.
The two passed eight kilometres together in 32:56, 11 seconds clear of a chase pack of 12 that included Stano, Ikeda and Yamanishi. But just two minutes later Kumar began drifting back and out of contention, swallowed by the chase pack in the ninth kilometre.
Wang forged on alone, hitting the nine-kilometre mark in 36:55 and the midway point in 40:55, 10 seconds clear of his nearest pursuers.
Yang reached 12 kilometres (49:03) alone, but, visibly beginning to strain, he too was gobbled up by the chase pack about two minutes later, with Spaniards Alvaro Martin and Diego Garcia, Japan's Yamanishi and Ikeda and Stano in the front pack.
By this time sizeable crowds began gathering along pockets of the one kilometre loop course, giving the Japanese duo something virtually all athletes at these Olympic Games were missing: fan and spectator support.
After swapping the lead a few times with Yamanishi, Stano lead the group of seven through 15 kilometres in 1:01:27 and after that, never relinquished the lead.
Just beyond the 17 kilometre point, three men remained in the hunt: Stano and Yamanishi and Ikeda, who were trying to apply the pressure as a two-flank attack.
With just over 1:15 on the clock, Stano and Ikeda were the last men standing, carrying a six-second lead on Yamanishi when the bell sounded the last lap. Stano looked unstoppable and ultimately was, pulling away gradually over the final stretch before crossing the finish in 1:21:05.
The time was well off his 1:17:45 lifetime best from 2019, but was the second-fastest performance of his career. Those stats were likely the furthest thing from his mind as he was trying to process what he had just accomplished.
"For now, this is like a dream - and I don't want to wake up."
Ikeda clocked 1:21:14 and Yamanishi 1:21:28 to secure Japan's first two athletics medals of these Olympic Games.
"He was very tough and strong, but I didn’t want to lose,” Ikeda said. “I kept behind him but he pulled away from me. I then focused on the next goal which was silver.”
The International Olympic Committee made the decision to move the race walks and marathons to Sapporo in October 2019 to avoid the significantly warmer temperatures expected in Tokyo, located more than 800 kilometers south. Conditions in Sapporo were warmer than expected, with the mercury reaching 31 degrees Celsius at the start, but cooling as the race progressed.
“The first half (of the race) it was hot, especially the first 10 minutes, but then it was getting cooler and cooler," Ikeda said.
Christopher Linke of Germany, who equalled his fifth place finish from the Rio Games five years ago, concurred.
"It was hot but it wasn't so bad," he said. "I was training in warmer and more humid conditions so I was well prepared."
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics
|MEN'S 20km RACE WALK MEDALLISTS|
|🥇||Massimo Stano 🇮🇹 ITA||1:21:05|
|🥈||Koki Ikeda 🇯🇵 JPN||1:21:14|
|🥉||Toshikazu Yamanishi 🇯🇵 JPN||1:21:28|