Australia's Dane Bird-Smith in action in the 20km race walk (© Getty Images)
Hot sun and hot competition is expected as Adelaide launches the 2015 edition of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge on Sunday (22).
Adelaide, capital city of South Australia, is usually hot and dry in summer and this year is no exception. Temperatures for Sunday’s men’s and women’s Oceania and Australian 20km Championship are predicted to range from 34-38 degrees Celsius.
Competitors will no doubt be grateful for the early morning start and what shade there is on a course through the edge-of-the-central business district park area abutting the River Torrens.
Jared Tallent has been a fixture in the top three of the challenge over recent years, finishing second, first and second in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. The multiple world and Olympic medallist has usually been able to bank maximum points at his ‘home’ event, but this year he faces a hot challenge from rising international star Dane Bird-Smith.
Whichever man comes out on top will gain an early edge in what could be a race to a position on the podium when the 2015 challenge concludes at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing at the end of August.
Last year’s challenge was launched with virtually simultaneous races in Hobart and Chihuahua, Mexico. Adelaide has the series opening honour on its own this year but within the following seven weeks the challenge will have visited five of the six IAAF areas as it kicks into high gear.
Adelaide (Oceania) will be followed by Chihuahua (North America) on 7 March, Nomi (Asia) for the Asian Race Walking Championships on 15 March, Dudince (Europe) on 21 March and the African Race Walking Championships in Mauritius on 11 April.
With the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Asia will host three of the 11 legs of the challenge: the Asian Race Walking Cup, Taicang – host of last year’s World Race Walking Cup – on 1 May, and the World Championships.
Europe will host four races – Dudince (Slovak Republic), Rio Maior (Portugal) on 18 April and two in Spain, the European Race Walking Cup in Murcia on 17 May and La Coruna on 6 June. South America has one – the Pan American Race Walking Cup in Arica, Chile on 9 May – as do North America, Oceania and Africa.
Contenders in 2015
The challenge visits six of the seven IAAF areas in its first few weeks; the contenders for the top positions at the end of the series will show a similar range of internationalism.
Last year’s top three men came from Europe (Ukraine’s Ruslan Dmytrenko), Oceania (Australia’s Tallent) and South America (Brazil’s Caio Bonfim).
China’s Liu Hong was top among the women, ahead of Italy’s Eleonora Giorgi and Ana Cabecinha of Portugal.
Yohann Diniz of France won the gold medal in the 50km at the European Championships in world record time from Matej Toth of Slovak Republic.
Dmytrenko triumphed in the 20km at the IAAF Race Walking World Cup ahead of China’s Cai Zelin, while Anisya Kirdyapkina of Russia took the women’s title.
All should be pushing for top honours in the challenge again this year.
Both Dmytrenko and Bonfim were the first top-three finishers for their respective countries in the 12 editions of the Race Walking Challenge.
With an Asian Race Walking Cup and Taicang to juggle in the early part of the year and a home World Championships beckoning later, it will be interesting to see how the Chinese race walkers play their cards this year. Some may be held back to target Beijing.
In any case, China has enough depth to challenge on all three fronts. Olympic bronze medallist Wang Zhen and Olympic champion Chen Ding were first and third in the 2012 challenge and could be to the fore again in 2015.
Despite its own internal turmoil, Russia, too, has the numbers to throw up contenders again.
The ever-consistent Tallent – the only race walker, male or female, to finish top three in the challenge for each of the past three years and the only man to even feature twice – is sure to be prominent again. Bird-Smith has emerged rapidly in the past two years, placing 11th in the 20km at the 2013 IAAF World Championships.
Tallent bids for seventh national title in Adelaide
The relative strengths of Tallent and Bird-Smith will be tested over 20km at the challenge opener in Adelaide.
Bird-Smith surprisingly took the corresponding race in Hobart last year when Tallent was disqualified. Bidding for a seventh Australian title, Tallent appeared to have held off a late charge from his younger rival only to be informed of his disqualification after he had crossed the line.
Another year’s progress may have taken Bird-Smith up to, or even past, Tallent this time. Tallent and Chris Erickson, who is also competing on Sunday, have already been selected for the 50km in Beijing, but Tallent is keeping his options open as to whether he doubles in the 20km. A win on Sunday might represent a persuasive argument.
Luke Adams will make an intriguing return. The three-time Olympic and five-time World Championships representative will be racing for the first time since the Taicang leg of the 2013 challenge.
Adams, who turns 39 in October, is also a previous winner of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, having finished top of the rankings as long ago as 2007.
In the women's 20km, Australia's 41-year-old Kelly Ruddick will defend her Oceania title. Among her challengers are Olympian Beki Smith, national 10,000m race walk champion Tanya Holliday and five-time Swedish champion Mari Olsson.
Len Johnson for the IAAF