Liu Hong and Eleonora Giorgi lead the women's 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup Taicang 2014 (© Getty Images)
All of Italy would like Eleonora Giorgi to break the tape in the women’s 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 on Saturday.
The home favourite appears to be the only race walker capable of breaking the stranglehold of the top five on the 2016 world list dominated by China, who on current form is a shoo-in for the team title.
In truth, only a catastrophe will see world record-holder and No.1 Liu Hong denied a team gold along with Qieyang Shenjie and Lu Xiuzhi as back up.
The superlative Liu recorded 1:25:56 in March in Huangshan – nearly two minutes, equating to about 600 metres, ahead of Qieyang’s time in winning the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in April’s Rio Maior race.
Remembering her scintillating 1:24:38 world record in La Coruna last year that ended all arguments over the fastest woman on the planet, Liu could walk well within herself and still win by the proverbial street.
But if China tops the podium individually and as a team, the talented Giorgi could also pocket two medals.
Giorgi is joined on the host nation’s team by Elisa Rigaudo. The 35-year-old has earned bronze medals at the 2008 Olympics, 2011 World Championships and 2006 European Championships, but more immediately telling, has a 1:28:31 clocking for third at Rio Maior, only a minute outside her eight-year best.
Battle will again commence to be No.1 on the Iberian Peninsula as well as a podium place for Spain and Portugal.
Numbers 10, 11 and 12 on the 2016 world list belong to race walkers from the two countries, with Ana Cabecinha heading Portugal’s three on 1:29:11 for third place at Dudince in March.
Portuguese teammate Ines Henriques is next, and Spain’s Beatriz Pascual belies the 34 years she will celebrate the Monday after the race with a 1:29:27 on home soil in February.
Both countries already have team medals from previous editions of these championships, and along with the afore mentioned, Spain can boast Raquel Gonzales, who clocked 1:29:46 at the same southern Spain race as Pascual, as well as experienced Maria Jose Poves and Julia Takacs.
Henriques get support from 41-year-old Susana Feitor, third at the 2005 World Championships, as well as previous World Cup medallist Vera Santos. Feitor will be making her 11th appearance at these championships, setting a record number for women.
In fact, the women’s team championship looks to be the closest of the weekend, but others who could make an individual mark serve as a timely reminder of Rio’s Olympics on the near horizon.
Erica De Sena looks set to carry the hopes of 204 million Brazilians in August, and the 30-year-old has given them reason to believe.
Her progress over the past three years has seen more than a minute lopped off each calendar best. The current mark for the partner of Ecuadorian hope Andres Choco is 1:28:22 for second behind Giorgi at Dudince in March.
A race walker knocking about 500 metres off her previous best three years in a row is sooner or later going to land a medal, and Rome could just be the venue where that starts for De Sena.
Greek race walker Despina Zapounidou is a lucky 13th on the 2016 world list with 1:29:35 set in March, and there is much to admire with the efforts made by smaller countries on the global race walking stage.
Brazil has three to back up De Sena, while Peru is sending two. And, for the first time, Ethiopia has a full complement of four women race walkers. Long known for its distance superlatives on running track and road in both sexes, the country is now branching out into race walking.
If they master the discipline, their endurance pedigree could permeate throughout the one continent yet to make an impact on the race walking scene.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF