Yohann Diniz in the 50km race walk at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)
Our 2017 end-of-year review series starts with Paul Warburton looking back at the best race walking performances of the year.
Men’s 20km race walk
All good things came to the patient Eider Arevalo.
The Colombian won the world 20km title in the last 300 metres with his back to Buckingham Palace on The Mall but had eyes firmly set on the crown.
It has been a bit of a wait for the 24-year-old. He burst on to the scene to win the U20 10km title at the 2010 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua, and then repeated the feat in Saransk two years later.
Two months earlier in 2012, he again breasted the tape to claim gold at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona.
While not exactly disappearing from the scene, Arevalo never rose to those global heights on the senior level until August.
His 2012 Olympic appearance in the UK capital saw him finish 20th; a solid result for an athlete who was still a junior at the time.
Five years on, the Pitalito native’s winning time of 1:18:53 was 52 seconds better than his previous best set in 2013. It equates to beating his old self by the best part of 300 metres and no better than ninth in this tumultuous race.
As a bonus, Arevalo also won the IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
Elsewhere, there was a world best in the seldom-contested mile at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London for Great Britain’s Tom Bosworth, who, together with a string of interviews and innovative media appearances, put race walking on the British map for the first time in 50 years.
The 27-year-old from Kent was even a reluctant centre stage when he was disqualified at 12 kilometres during the World Championships.
His grief was laid bare for all to see, but along with world U20 champion Callum Wilkinson, he is still the country’s best hope of a global medal since the 1964 Olympics.
No medal to show for it either, but still a breakthrough year for Lebogang Shange.
The South African race walked one of the fastest kilometres ever in a major championship when he notched 3:46 between 18 and 19 kilometres in London. To say he stormed through doesn’t do it justice. He made up the best part of 100 metres to latch on to the leaders, but overcooked it to slip back a fraction to finish fourth and rewrite his own national record to 1:19:18 – a 48-second improvement, and 40 places better than a disappointing Olympics last year.
Such is the strength in depth in men’s race walking, spare a thought for Christopher Linke and Dane-Bird Smith.
Germany’s Linke strolled to gold at the European Race Walking Cup in May over 20km to make it a second victory in consecutive months in Podebrady. He won the European Athletics permit meeting on 8 April as well as removing 20 seconds from his personal best to breeze home in 1:18:59, but could still only manage fifth in London four months later.
Bird-Smith followed up his 2016 Olympic bronze with the first challenge win of the year at home in Adelaide. In fact, the Australian was a place behind Linke along The Mall in a personal best of 1:19:28, but learned like all top race walkers that if a week or thereabouts in politics is a lifetime, it’s much the same for race walking.
Men’s 50km race walk
The best thing about watching Yohann Diniz race is you never know what you’re going to get.
The dazzling Frenchman either succeeds spectacularly or he bombs – there is little in between.
The only certainty at the start of the men’s 50km race walk at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 in August was a blistering pace when even his closest chasers were soon left watching him go down one side of London’s famous Mall while he flew up the other.
The same tactic came unstuck for Diniz in Rio at the Olympics last year and at several other tilts at a world crown. But the world record-holder held it all wonderfully well together this time to take a long overdue win.
Even when nudged more than once whether retirement was in his sights as he hits the big 40 on the first day of 2018, Diniz reckoned he still had plans.
Why not? When you race walk 3:33:12 – the second-fastest time in history – and finish nearly a full two kilometres ahead of bronze and silver, age is clearly not a barrier.
Japan’s Hirooki Arai followed up his Olympic bronze medal from last year with a silver medal in London, with teammate Kai Kobayashi finishing just two seconds behind to take bronze.
With eight men finishing inside 3:45, 19 within 3:50 and 29 within four hours, it was one of the deepest 50km races in history.
Having come so close to bronze in Rio 12 months prior, Evan Dunfee was disappointed to finish 15th in London. But earlier in the year the Canadian deservedly won his first challenge race in March in Monterrey at 50km. Outside of the World Championships, Dunfee’s 3:46:03 clocking was the fastest winning time of the three 50km contests within the Race Walking Challenge.
Women’s 20km race walk
There was something of a South and Central American look to the challenge rankings – for both men and women.
Brazil’s Erica de Sena took first from Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez. The latter followed up a breakthrough 2016 and Olympic silver with another second at the World Championships.
As for Rio, the race walker known as Lupita to her friends knew all too well the agony of a final sprint and a single second.
The legendary Liu Hong inched ahead in the final throes at the Olympics. This time it was another Chinese, Yang Jiayu, who won a dramatic race as teammate Lyu Xiuzhi suffered disqualification in the last 100 yards with Gonzales a heartbeat behind the winner.
The Mexican set up her second silver with challenge victories at Ciudad Juarez and Lima. But De Sena, fourth at the World Championships in a 1:26:59 South American record, also notched up firsts in the series at Monterrey and La Coruna. She is getting closer to a global medal.
It was also a decent year for Antonella Palmisano. The Italian was two steps from rewriting the 27-year-old 10,000m track race walk world record in Orvieto in April, and went on to win the European Cup by a huge margin a month later in the Czech spa town of Podebrady.
In fact, had she not stopped to pick up an Italian flag – twice, after dropping it first time and 50 metres from the finish – she would also have beaten her own best of 1:27:51. In the event, she lost out by seven seconds.
In London, she had to dig deep over the last two kilometres on her own after getting dropped by the front three, but Italian resolve reaped dividends when she discovered the bronze was hers after Lyu was brought to an abrupt halt by the red disc.
Kimberley Garcia, fifth in this year’s Race Walking Challenge, also enjoyed a breakthrough year.
The Peruvian’s 1:29:13 national record for seventh in London nailed down the impressive fact that four different South American countries featured in the first five of the two challenges: a clear indication the continent is belatedly following up the massive impact made by the great Jefferson Perez in the 90s and noughties.
Women’s 50km race walk
Race walking’s biggest debate of 2017 was the inclusion of a 50km World Championship race for women. 25 years after the inclusion of the first women’s 10km at the Olympics, women finally got to match men at all race-walking disciplines and seven women lined up for the longer event in London.
Portugal’s Ines Henriques was in tears after disqualification at the European Cup in May at the shorter 20km, but looked like her beaming smile would last the rest of the year after claiming the inaugural world 50km title.
In doing so, she pocketed US$60,000 for the win, a bonus US$100,000 for a world record of 4:05:56, and boosted the bank account still further with third in the Challenge standings on count back ahead of compatriot Ana Cabecinha.
There are probably a few more talented women race walkers wondering ‘what if?’ had they dipped their toe into the longer event. Henriques was surely in the right place at the right time for her moment of glory.
Others who may be on the cusp of success might be now prompted to give 50km a go. They need to, or Henriques’ triumph might one of the few at the distance.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF