Italian race walkers Matteo Giupponi, Francesco Fortunato and Valentina Trapletti (© Getty Images)
Italy goes to the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships Muscat 22 on March 4-5 without its two biggest stars, but cautiously optimistic it will still challenge for honours.
Massimo Stano and Antonella Palmisano will miss Muscat, the first time the event has visited the Middle East since its debut as the Lugano Cup in 1961. The Olympic 20km gold medallists are joined on the sidelines by world 50km bronze medallist Eleonora Giorgi. All three are putting eggs into a pair of 2022 baskets: the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 in July and the European Championships in Munich in August.
As a result, the Azurri are pinning faith on up-and-coming race walkers in Oman, all of whom have registered promising times in 2022.
It’s what head coach Antonio La Torre calls a ‘transitional period’ for Italian race walking.
“We have decided to give a chance to the young athletes, so the team will be very strong – but it won’t be the strongest team we can send,” he said.
La Torre points out Stano and Palmisano only recently got back into full training after celebrating their Olympic glory.
“Antonella and Massimo need time to get back into shape after the post-Olympics celebrations – that, in my personal opinion, were more than deserved,” he says. “We’ve decided not to pressure them too much, and Eleonora has had a little problem that made her stop, but now she’s getting back into shape.
“Another potential athlete, (Eleonora) Dominici (team silver at the last World Race Walking Team Championships in 2018), has a minor muscle injury. Others have decided not to choose the 20km, so it’s truly a moment of transition for this distance.”
Only one Italian contests the women’s 20km: 36-year-old Valentina Trapletti, who has a personal best of 1:29:57 dating back to 2018.
One of the better hopes lies with Gianluca Picchiottino. The 25-year-old has been in the shadows, held back by a series of muscle injuries, although he boasts a best of 1:21:36 for 20km from 2019, and more recently, 2:37:32 for 35km just last October.
He won the shorter distance at a canter in Pescara on 16 January at the Italian Club Championships with 1:22:08 to second place and experienced international Federico Tontodonati’s 1:23:37, and just ahead of Andrea Cosi (1:23:51).
Picchiottino, from Livorno in Tuscany, carries understated hopes for Italy in Oman.
La Torre explained: “He is one of the names we’ll pay the most attention to at this event. He’s an athlete with a lot of potential, and he has proven that this year by getting close to 1:20 for 20km.”
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Also tipped by the coach is Francesco Fortunato, who notched a creditable 15th at the Olympics, and before that a breakthrough 1:19:43 at the European Race Walking Team Championships in May.
Fortunato was not as fortunate as his name suggests when registering a DNF over 35km in Pescara last month, but La Torre is confident he will come good in Muscat.
The coach said: “We expect a good result from Francesco after his Olympics performance; a placement that finally showed his talent.”
It’s the new 35km distance that also offers hope for team success in a competition where Italy has won nine individual medals including three golds, as well as an impressive 20 team podium finishes in both sexes at all versions of the event.
There were indeed silvers for both 20km teams in blue from the last World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang in 2018.
Although Giorgi won’t be headed to Oman, her boyfriend is. Matteo Giupponi notched a comfortable 2:33:45 win in Pescara at 35km – almost a minute ahead of second place Riccardo Orsoni, who needed an extra gear to edge past Aldo Andrei and prevail by just four seconds. Stefano Chiesa was a further minute back for fourth.
One athlete missing at Pescara was Michele Antonelli, but the 27-year-old already earned his berth with a 2:33:40 win in Grottammare on the Adriatic coast in October.
La Torre said: “We’ll keep a close eye on the young ones, like Orsoni and Andrei on the 35km, as well expecting a good outcome from Giupponi, Antonelli, and Chiesa.”
The women’s team will boast Federica Curiazzi, who like Giupponi was an easy first at Pescara in 2:52:24 ahead of Nicole Colombi in 2:54:32.
Factor in Lidia Barcella, bronze at the European Team Race Walking Championships last May, and it’s a pretty good bedrock, as far as La Torre is concerned.
“We’ll be keeping our eyes and hopes on these athletes as well,” he added.
The U20 men’s team is the first three in Pescara, Nicola Lomuscio, Diego Giampaolo and Pietro Notaristefano. All three finished comfortably inside 43 minutes. The U20 women’s podium all finished within a minute of each other, headed by Vittoria Di Dato in 48:32.
These are race walkers for the future, as the head coach points out.
“Our plan is for them to earn some experience in such an important international competition,” said La Torre.
Therefore, Muscat is the first step on a road that leads to the Olympic Games in 2024 for those who seize their opportunity.
“We have made the decision to send the young athletes to open a long way that leads to Paris,” he said. “We want to start a long-term project with the new generation.”
And the expected 26 degrees heat in Oman? As bad as the 2019 World Championships and the Olympics? La Torre doesn’t think so.
“As for the venue, we are very curious, in a good way. I’ve been to Oman myself some time ago, and I expect favourable conditions to compete.
“26C is not a temperature that makes it impossible, especially after what we have seen at Doha and Sapporo.”
Paul Warburton for World Athletics