Liu Hong wins the women's 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 (© Getty Images)
NOTE: Due to disqualification(s) resulting from anti-doping rule violation(s) the result of this competition has changed: see official results here.
With her 20km victory at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016, Liu Hong is one step close to completing the grand slam of major race walking titles.
The Chinese race walker is the world record-holder and a two-time world champion. She also topped the IAAF Race Walking Challenge standings for the past two years and even won the world junior title back in 2006.
But the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships is one title that, until today, had eluded the 28-year-old.
Showing no signs of feeling the effects of a recent cold she had mentioned at the pre-event press conference, Liu was always present at the front of the race. But she didn’t have it all her own way.
Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez set a national record of 1:28:48 at the 2014 edition of this event. Since then, she has been undefeated, winning the Pan-American title and various Race Walking Challenge events. She proved to be Liu’s toughest rival throughout the first half of the race.
Liu led a lead pack of seven through 5km in 22:10. Only four of those – Gonzalez, China’s Olympic silver medallist Qieyang Shenjie and home hope Eleonora Giorgi – were still in contact at half way, reached in 43:51.
But just before 12km, which was covered in 52:17, Liu Hong upped the pace and opened a gap on Gonzalez. Qieyang and Giorgi were locked in a battle for third place.
A few minutes later, Qieyang clipped a cone on the tightest turn of the two-kilometre loop, falling to the ground. But she regained contact with Giorgi within a minute of being back on her feet and then began to close on Gonzalez to challenge for second place.
A third Chinese 1-2 finish of the day began to look like a distinct possibility.
Liu, meanwhile, continued to plough on ahead. She passed 15km in 1:05:00, having covered the previous 5km in 21:09, and was some 14 seconds in front of Gonzalez and Qieyang. Giorgi’s chances of securing a medal in front of her home crowd were beginning to fade as she trailed six seconds behind the leading trio.
Just one lap later, a rejuvenated Giorgi rejoined Gonzalez and Qieyang in what became a three-way battle for two medals. But with two red cards to her name, Giorgi knew that she couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
Qieyang eventually faded, leaving Giorgi and Gonzalez side by side. The Italian dug in and gritted her teeth in a desperate bid to take the silver medal. But shortly after Liu entered the stadium on her way to an assured victory, Giorgi was shown a third red card was disqualified, leaving Gonzalez alone in second place.
Liu crossed the line in 1:25:59, the second-fastest time in the history of the championships, to complete the Chinese sweep of all the individual gold medals on offer on Saturday.
“I was always in front but I felt a bit nervous because I didn't know if the others had more energy or if their rhythm could speed up,” said Liu. “I had to keep turning to check them and keep up my speed.”
Gonzalez smashed the North American record with her time of 1:26:17, outlining her status as a genuine contender for an Olympic medal.
Qieyang came through for third place in 1:26:49 while Brazil’s Erica de Sena finished fourth in a South American record of 1:27:18.
The biggest cheers were reserved for Italian veteran Elisa Rigaudo. At 35 years of age, the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist equalled her best ever finish at this event to place fifth in 1:28:03.
With four athletes in the top eight, China secured their seventh gold medal of the day by taking the team title. Australia, led by 12th-place finisher Regan Lamble, took team silver while Colombia clinched the bronze medal, just six points ahead of Portugal.
Having produced the most dominant performance of the day, Liu looks well on her way to completing her grand slam of titles at the Rio Olympics later this summer.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF