Massimo Stano on the way to Olympic 20km race walk gold in Sapporo (© Getty Images)
As the year draws to a close, we look back at the key moments of 2021 in each area of the sport.
The series continues with a review of the race walks and will be followed over the coming days by reviews of all the other event groups.
Women’s 20km race walk
Season top list
|1:23:49||Yang Jiayu 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:24:27||Liu Hong 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:24:45||Qieyang Shijie 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:25:41||Yelena Lashmanova 🇷🇺 RUS||Sochi||19 February|
|1:25:51||Lyu Xiuzhi 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1||Antonella Palmisano 🇮🇹 ITA||1311|
|2||Maria Perez 🇪🇸 ESP||1293|
|3||Sandra Lorena Arenas 🇨🇴 COL||1256|
|4||Alegna Gonzalez 🇲🇽 MEX||1244|
|5||Jemima Montag 🇦🇺 AUS||1242|
|🥇||Antonella Palmisano 🇮🇹 ITA||1:29:12|
|🥈||Sandra Lorena Arenas 🇨🇴 COL||1:29:37|
|🥉||Liu Hong 🇨🇳 CHN||1:29:57|
Season at a glance
It was a record-breaking year, in many ways, in the women’s 20km race walk.
Just 11 weeks into 2021, China’s Yang Jiayu smashed the world record by 49 seconds with her 1:23:49 clocking in Huangshan. Multiple world champion Liu Hong finished second in 1:24:27 – faster than the previous world record that she had set in La Coruna in 2015 – and third-placed Qieyang Shijie clocked 1:24:45 to move to fourth on the world all-time list.
It was the first race in history in which three women have bettered 1:25:00. It also set the tone for the rest of the season; by the end of the year, 40 women had broken 1:30, while 100 women had recorded times of 1:33:20 or faster – both benchmarks of record depth.
But despite China’s strength in the discipline, it was Italy’s Antonella Palmisano who struck Olympic gold on the streets of Sapporo.
On the day she turned 30, Palmisano strode to victory in 1:29:12 to win by 25 seconds from Colombia’s Sandra Arenas. Yang had been in the lead pack for most of the way but was hit with a stint in the penalty box, taking her out of medal contention. Liu, the defending Olympic champion, put in a late-race surge to claim bronze.
Palmisano’s only other race before the Olympics was a victory at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady, where she clocked a season’s best of 1:27:42 to finish 21 seconds ahead of Spain’s European champion Maria Perez, who went on the place fourth at the Olympics.
The other big race of the year came in La Coruna in June, where Arenas made clear her Olympic ambitions with her 1:28:24 victory. Mexican youngster Alegna Gonzalez, the 2018 world U20 champion, finished a highly creditable second there in a PB of 1:28:40, and she matched that level of performance at the Olympics by finishing fifth.
Men’s 20km race walk
Season top list
|1:16:54||Wang Kaihua 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:17:20||Toshikazu Yamanishi 🇯🇵 JPN||Kobe||21 February|
|1:17:39||Cai Zelin 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:17:39||Zhang Jun 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1:17:52||Cui Lihong 🇨🇳 CHN||Huangshan||20 March|
|1||Alvaro Martin 🇪🇸 ESP||1304|
|2||Massimo Stano 🇮🇹 ITA||1295|
|3||Diego Garcia Carrera 🇪🇸 ESP||1294|
|4||Perseus Karlstrom 🇸🇪 SWE||1271|
|5||Salih Korkmaz 🇹🇷 TUR||1254|
|🥇||Massimo Stano 🇮🇹 ITA||1:21:05|
|🥈||Koki Ikeda 🇯🇵 JPN||1:21:14|
|🥉||Toshikazu Yamanishi 🇯🇵 JPN||1:21:28|
Season at a glance
Massimo Stano chose the perfect moment to secure his first ever victory in an international race.
The Italian produced one of the biggest surprises of the Games to win the Olympic 20km race walk title. He had barely registered on the radar ahead of the Olympics, having placed eighth at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady. But at that point he was still rehabbing his way back to full health; by the time he arrived in Japan, he was back to the form that carried him to an Italian record of 1:17:45 in 2019.
Given the conditions in Sapporo, his gold-medal-winning time at the Olympics wasn’t quite so fast, of course, but his finishing speed proved too much for his opponents as he won by nine seconds. It proved to be a good event for Japan, too, as it produced the host nation’s only athletics medals of the Games; Koki Ikeda took silver in 1:21:14, while world champion Toshikazu Yamanishi earned bronze in 1:21:28.
Wang Kaihua, who clocked a world-leading Chinese record of 1:16:54 in Huangshan back in March to move to third on the world all-time list, finished some way out of the medals at the Olympics, placing seventh in 1:22:03. Zhang Jun, one of four Chinese men to finish inside 1:18 in that race in Huangshan, finished one place behind Wang in Sapporo.
The Japanese Championships in Kobe in February produced its usual impressive depth with Yamanishi winning in 1:17:20, and Eiki Takahashi (1:18:04) and Ikeda (1:18:45) also finishing comfortably inside 1:20.
Perseus Karlstrom and Diego Garcia, meanwhile, were the top performers in the big European races ahead of the Games. Karlstrom won the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady in 1:18:54, while Garcia triumphed in La Coruna in 1:19:37. Garcia and Karlstrom went on to finish sixth and ninth respectively at the Olympics.
Women’s 35km and 50km race walk
Season top list (35km)
|2:39:51||Darya Golubechkova ⚪️ ANA||Voronovo||5 September|
|2:43:14||Margarita Nikiforova 🇷🇺 RUS||Sochi||19 February|
|2:44:17||Maria Perez 🇪🇸 ESP||Seville||14 February|
|2:45:00||Elmira Alembikova 🇷🇺 RUS||Sochi||19 February|
|2:46:29||Anastasiya Kalashnikova 🇷🇺 RUS||Sochi||19 February|
|1||Maria Perez 🇪🇸 ESP||1239|
|2||Maria Ntrismpioti 🇬🇷 GRE||1213|
|3||Eleonora Giorgi 🇮🇹 ITA||1188|
|4||Raquel Gonzalez 🇪🇸 ESP||1187|
|5||Ines Henriques 🇵🇹 POR||1183|
Season at a glance
In what proved to be something of a transitional year for race walks, many of the longer-distance specialists started to turn their attention to the 35km event, given it will become a standard championship discipline from 2022 onwards.
As such, it was contested at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady, where Greece’s Antigoni Ntrismpioti took the spoils in what was the largest international race over the distance in 2021. The 37-year-old won in 2:49:55 to finish more than a minute ahead of world 50km bronze medallist Eleonora Giorgi.
European champion Maria Perez also tested the longer distance waters with a 2:44:17 outing in Seville in February, elevating her to fifth on the world all-time list. It stood as the world-leading mark for most of 2021 until early September when authorised neutral athlete Darya Golubechkova clocked 2:39:51.
In a year with no big international 50km races, Margarita Nikiforova topped the world list with her 4:03:07 clocking at the Russian Championships in May.
Men’s 35km and 50km race walk
Season top list (50km)
|3:38:42||Satoshi Maruo 🇯🇵 JPN||Wajima||11 April|
|3:42:34||Hayato Katsuki 🇯🇵 JPN||Wajima||11 April|
|3:43:31||Kai Kobayashi 🇯🇵 JPN||Wajima||11 April|
|3:43:44||Jonathan Hilbert 🇩🇪 GER||Frankfurt||10 April|
|3:44:46||Sergey Rakov 🇷🇺 RUS||Cheboksary||29 May|
|1||Perseus Karlstrom 🇸🇪 SWE||1227|
|2||Aleksi Ojala 🇫🇮 FIN||1186|
|3||Brendan Boyce 🇮🇪 IRL||1182|
|4||Alexandros Papamichail 🇬🇷 GRE||1164|
|5||Caio Bonfim 🇧🇷 BRA||1161|
|🥇||Dawid Tomala 🇵🇱 POL||3:50:08|
|🥈||Jonathan Hilbert 🇩🇪 GER||3:50:44|
|🥉||Evan Dunfee 🇨🇦 CAN||3:50:59|
Season at a glance
For the past few years, the men’s 50km race walk had been shaping up as Japan’s best chance of an Olympic gold on home soil.
It ended up being the biggest shock result of the Games. Poland’s Dawid Tomala, contesting just his third race over the distance to date – his first being a DNF back in 2017, and his next being a fifth-place finish in Dudince in March 2021 – made an early break in the race and managed to hold on all the way to the end, winning in 3:50:08 to finish 36 seconds clear of Germany’s Jonathan Hilbert. World bronze medallist Evan Dunfee utilised his trademark strong finish to claim bronze in 3:50:59.
Japan’s world champion Yusuke Suzuki, the early favourite for Olympic gold, had to surrender his place at the Games due to injury. National record-holder Masatora Kawano was Japan’s top finisher in Sapporo, placing sixth in 3:51:56 – almost a minute shy of a podium place. Compatriots Hayato Katsuki and Satoshi Maruo, meanwhile, finished 30th and 32nd respectively.
Earlier in the year, Maruo had clocked a world-leading 3:38:42 at the Japanese Championships in Wajima with Katsuki finishing second in 3:42:34. It bumped Hilbert down the world list, as the German had recorded a world-leading PB of 3:43:44 just one day prior in Frankfurt – an eight-minute improvement on his previous best.
Marc Tur was another breakthrough performer in this discipline. The Spaniard improved his best by more than seven minutes to win at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady with 3:47:40. He went on to finish fourth in Sapporo, an agonising nine seconds shy of a medal.
In among the relative newcomers to the event, Portuguese veteran Joao Vieira finished fifth in Sapporo. The 45-year-old world silver medallist clocked a season’s best of 3:51:28 to come within 30 seconds of a podium place. Long-time opponent Jesus Angel Garcia, meanwhile, placed 35th. The 52-year-old Spaniard announced his retirement shortly after the Games, having made a record eighth Olympic appearance.
Dudince, as it always does, played host to one of the other big international 50km races of the year. Guatemala’s Bernardo Uriel Barrondo won there in 3:47:01 from Lithuania’s Artur Mastianica (3:48:24) with Tomala placing fifth, a further 59 seconds in arrears. The Pole would have the last laugh, though, at the Olympics five months later.
Dublin hosted the biggest international 35km race of the year, kicking off the 2021-2022 Race Walking Tour series. Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom won in 2:31:54 – 27 seconds shy of Dementiy Cheparev’s world lead from February – with Ireland’s Brendan Boyce taking second spot in 2:32:49.