Ma Zhenxia and Ma Li cross the finish line in the U20 women's 10km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 (© Getty Images)
The U20 women’s 10km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 proved to be a cracking race with a real burn-up over the last 300 metres between the two leading Chinese race walkers.
As Ma Zhenxia and Ma Li shot through the finish line there was no impression of a conveniently agreed and possibly diplomatic tie. Both clearly wanted the victory, and it needed a photo finish to separate them by an amazing six-thousandths of a second – the first time any race at any World Cup has seen leading race walkers finish on the same second.
There was a brave bronze for Mexico’s Valeria Ortuno three seconds later, not only rewarded with a medal for refusing to yield when the pace ratcheted up, but a personal best by 15 seconds and an area U20 record on a day when new marks were few and far between.
Earlier, everyone toed the line in the shadow of the Constantine Arch and strode out down the Via di San Gregorio like Roman troops 2000 years ago – except these junior women were going a fair bit quicker.
Even so, a clutch of race walkers appeared to belie their personal bests to head to the front of the field including Finland’s Taika Nummi alongside Tayla-Paige Billington wearing the green and gold of Australia.
Right behind, Ma Li and Italy’s Noemi Stella were putting on a show for home fans, but the pace was still a modest 14:03 going through 3km.
Shortly after, the cap-wearing Ma Zhenxia came level at the front for the first time and the leading group of 18 started to splinter with remnants flying off the back.
Germany’s Teresa Zurek was next to chance her arm at the front, and the sudden injection of pace reduced the phalanx to nine.
It was no wonder. The pace had shot up to 23:12 for halfway with Ortuno also making her first bid for glory.
By 6km the charge had reduced the numbers to six with Australia’s Zoe Hunt having the race of her life just about hanging on to the leaders’ coat tails, but also labouring under the threat of two disqualification cards that soon turned into all three.
Just before 9km, there was an almighty sprint from Ma Zhenxia, who lit the afterburners of a 44:29 personal best from March.
She looked a comfortable first, but was soon looking over shoulder as her teammate and Ortuno gave chase.
Ma Zhenxia, the world youth champion, gave it a second burst to lose her pursuers, and still they came back at her.
Going on to the track, there was at last daylight between China and Mexico, but at the finish line, only technology made the division.
Back in the day of the naked eye, a recorder would surely have made it a tie.
Stella came home a good fourth, and Nummi looked delighted with fifth.
Needless to say, China took the team prize, Mexico were second, and Australia third.
At least three race walkers were given a two-minute pit stop in a bold experiment designed to spare athletes the ignominy of total disqualification.
Once a third card came in, as it did for Hunt, they were shepherded into the sidings and set back on their way after two minutes.
As an idea it has legs, and allowed the fallen to put theirs back into action and complete the race.
The winner has a thicker vest than the difference between she and second, but a win is still a win.
"It feels pretty good to win after very hard training," Zhenxia said. "The beginning of the course is difficult but the rest of it was very good
"I won today thanks to my relaxed attitude, and because there was a strong field."
The second Ma was in doubt about the winner until technology made the difference.
Li explained: "We did not know who had won, and we had not planned to finish together." And although it was only fourth for Stella, it was as good as gold.
"I felt like I won," the Italian said. "I had two terrible months because of a back injury. As a result, I did not expect to finish fourth, but I just gritted my teeth throughout and just kept my rhythm."
Paul Warburton for the IAAF