Heristone Wanyonyi in the 10,000m race walk at the World Athletics U20 Championships Nairobi 21 (© Roger Sedres)
For fans of athletics, perhaps the best thing about age-group championships is how they offer a window into the future of the sport – a glimpse of the names and faces that will light up the track, field and roads at senior level in years to come.
But it’s not just the stars you can first identify here, it’s the trends. When an event goes through a transformation at senior level, the roots of that are typically traced back many years to U20 level. In this, the most global of sports, one event in particular showed a changing face at the World Athletics U20 Championships Nairobi 21.
Look back through the roll of honour in the men’s 10,000m race walk at the championships and the nations that dominated, while diverse, have a certain consistency about them: China, Russia, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico – nations where race walking is held in the highest esteem.
Two nations that had never appeared on the medal stand for race walking in previous editions of the championships were India and Kenya. But that changed last weekend in Nairobi, with Heristone Wanyonyi of Kenya and Amit of India dominating the men’s race to win gold and silver respectively.
This was proof that race walking is branching out of its typical strongholds, connecting with new pastures and unearthing fresh talents.
For Wanyonyi, the result was validation of his choice to go against the grain in 2015, when he first took up the sport while in class seven of primary school, following the advice of a teacher, Edward Moti.
“I got some technical cues, I watched some videos on YouTube,” said the 18-year-old. “I ran 10,000m before but in running I was not going to make it. I prefer race walking; it’s my favourite.”
In a nation obsessed with distance-running, choosing race walking occasionally drew some curious glances.
“It’s very hard for us Kenyans to understand race walking, they believe in long-distance events it’s (about) running,” he says. “They don’t take race walking seriously, but my coach told me to take race walking seriously; it’s an even harder event.”
Wanyonyi is currently training under the guidance of Geoffrey Otwani at Ruaraka’s General Service Unit camp, and has just finished secondary school in West Pokot. He trains with senior athletes and typically race walks for an hour a day in training.
One of his big inspirations was Dominic Ndigiti, who won Kenya’s first ever global race walk medal when finishing third in the 10,000m event at the World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017.
“Ndigiti was my best friend, he trained with me several times,” says Wanyonyi. “He told me to work hard, that (race walk) is very simple and technical.”
Wanyonyi is aware that the event isn’t something people tend to pick up on their own, often needing a mentor or someone to give them a gentle push.
“We need to encourage young walkers who are in school,” he says. “By winning this, I know it will give them hope.”
Heading into Saturday’s race, both Wanyonyi and Amit doubted their chances of leading the field home. Amit had arrived in Nairobi earlier in the week but found himself struggling in the cool conditions and thin air, with Nairobi sitting at an altitude of 1795 metres.
“I felt a breathing problem,” he said. “The last few days I didn’t feel very comfortable.”
The 17-year-old had started the year in fine style, breaking the Indian U20 record in Bhopal, clocking 40:40.97. His father, Suresh Kumar, introduced him to sports early in his childhood to improve his health and physique.
“He lacked stamina,” Kumar told Hindustan Times. “His haemoglobin count used to be low. So I used to take him out for running in the morning, whenever I was at home.”
In 2014 Amit joined a friend on a trip to Bahadurgarh to meet a race walk coach, CS Rathi, where he first tried it out and took an immediate liking to the event. He approached various elite coaches in the years that followed but many figured he didn’t have what it took to be successful. Undeterred, Amit soon came under the guidance of international race walker Chandan Singh and steadily began to improve.
“I saw his dedication. I saw that with his stamina and build he is never shy of putting effort,” Singh told Hindustan Times. “He can go a long way.”
Entering the final kilometres in Saturday’s 10,000m race walk, Amit appeared to have the gold medal in his grasp, a strong surge carrying him clear of the field before Wanyonyi went in pursuit and set up a thrilling head-to-head finale.
Amit surrendered the lead to Wanyonyi on the penultimate lap and it was a lead the Kenyan never relinquished, powering away over the final lap to hit the line in a PB of 42:10.84, with Amit taking silver in 42:17.94 and Spain’s Paul McGrath earning bronze in 42:26.11.
“He went for water and it gave me an opportunity to make a move,” said Wanyonyi, who was given one warning in the closing laps but it was not enough to deter him as he flew to victory.
Having broken new ground for Indian race walking with his silver, Amit said he’d been inspired by the feat of Neeraj Chopra, who won Olympic gold in the men’s javelin in Tokyo. “We got a great inspiration from Chopra’s medal and after that I planned to try my best to get a medal for India,” he said. “I am very proud, very happy.”
The win had taken Wanyonyi by surprise. “I did not expect to win gold (before) but in the race I was very comfortable,” he said. “With four laps I was sure I’d win gold because the body was okay.”
For Wanyonyi, gold at U20 level offers the perfect platform to now build a successful senior career.
“I’ll be there at senior at the next Olympic Games,” he said. “We train for the 2024 Olympics and God-willing, we will be there. My plan is to become Olympic champion.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics