Zhang Jun approaches the finish line in the U20 men's 10km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 (© Getty Images)
The future is so bright for Zhang Jun that he was the only race walker in the first three at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 who needed sunglasses.
However, the Chinese athlete was cast into bright sunlight as he strode home to underline his status as the pre-race favourite.
Behind him, there was a terrific scramble to mount the podium won by Manuel Bermudez from Spain to set a four-second personal best, and Mexico’s Noel Chama came third after a charge in the latter stages to pip Callum Wilkinson from Great Britain.
There was no hanging about from Wilkinson as he shot away at the start.
The fair-haired white-vested native from Newmarket is fresh from a 41:31 personal best recorded in March, and looked a thoroughbred as he rattled through the first four kilometres.
Zhang has gone even faster, and it was mere seconds before he made up the ground to Wilkinson. At 4km, he made his own push to be home alone.
The Brit was joined by Cesar Rodriguez from Peru, the only top-10 survivor from the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, China’s Jin Xiangqian, Rodriguez’s teammate Lenyn Mamani, Spain’s Bermudez and Japan’s Masatora Kawano to enhance the eclectic mix.
Halfway was reached by Zhang in a speedy 20:22, with the others a mere two seconds back.
By 6km there was clear daylight between the chasers and the leading pack now down to Chama, Zhang, Wilkinson, and Bermudez.
Behind the quartet, the Peruvian pair were desperately trying to stay in touch, desperate being the operative word as the leaders hit 32:58 for 8km.
Shortly after, Wilkinson was next to feel the heat, and not just the Roman rising sun, but the injection of pace from Zhang as he made five metres on Bermudez, who in turn carved out the same, despite a great walk from the Great Briton.
Wilkinson dug deep to close the gap, and lost it in the next 100 metres, with the Spaniard storming after the Chinese leader.
The short but quick striding Zhang ate up the ground over the last kilometre to make certain of his win, and Bermudez also had a bit of daylight to spare to win silver.
However, a magnificent last 150 metres between the tiring Wilkinson and Chama, who clearly got a second wind in the second half of the race, excited the throng at the finishing line.
The two were as far opposite as possible on the track heading to the line, but it was the Mexican who prevailed. Wilkinson’s razor sharp race walk was rewarded with another personal best, this time in 40:30 to take more than a minute off his own national junior record. His fourth-place finish was the highest position achieved by a Briton in any race at these championships since 1979.
The winner, however, claimed he was far from certain about gold on the start line.
“At the beginning I felt my condition was not so good,” said Zhang, the world youth silver medallist. “It must be the weather; it was a bit too hot. In the last six kilometres I felt my energy would not be enough. I tried to adjust and then I perked up.”
Bermudez felt the warmth of the sun and a family gathered to cheer him on.
“I’m very satisfied,” he said. “I gave it my all because the race was difficult, it was really hot. My family is here and I feel supported. Before we started, I was hoping for a fast race like it has been in the past, but I didn't think I would be on the podium.”
Chama enjoyed the benefit of bronze and qualification for the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016 in July.
“It was a tough race – and I knew it would be, because it was my first season as an U20,” he said. “It’s a great moment for me as I made the qualification standards to compete in Bydgoszcz. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to compete with the senior national team in just a few years.”
Mexico were team champions, and newcomers Peru earned a magnificent team silver, with the improving Japanese taking the final medal.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF