Aleksandr Ivanov wins the men's 20km race walk at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow (© Getty Images)
Familiar foes are ready to do battle at the 26th IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Taicang over the coming weekend (3-4) as China and Russia once again stand out as main contenders for the individual and team gold medals in the two senior men’s events.
The hosts will be especially motivated in their own back yard, as they demonstrated last time the Cup was played out on Chinese soil, in Beijing back in 1995.
Back then, they secured a hat-trick of victories in the men’s senior races to announce their arrival as a global race walking powerhouse, and there is no reason to suggest they can’t repeat the feat although the mighty neighbour should certainly have something to say about that.
In the men’s 20km, Russia has three men with career bests faster than the benchmark of 1:20:00, although these days even breaking 80 minutes is unlikely to garner many medals at major races.
However, in Aleksandr Ivanov, even though he ‘only’ has a best of 1:20:44, they have an athlete at the top of his game.
The current world champion, who celebrated his 21st birthday last Friday, nicked 12 seconds off his best at the Russian Winter Race Walking Championships in Sochi in March.
Andrey Ruzavin has a best almost three minutes quicker than that, although he and the others have kept their powder relatively dry this year with more moderate times until now, perhaps.
China can boast of having the current Olympic champion on their 20km starting line, the guitar-strumming Chen Ding, whose famed Italian coach Sandro Damilano reckons his charge only hits the right note for big ones.
Chen has yet to show in 2014, but with a personal best 1:17:40 and a championship record that also includes a silver medal at the 2013 IAAF World Championships last year, he certainly can’t be discounted.
The partisan crowd is expected to help orchestrate a win in the team competition and if Chen were to hit a bum note, you can take your pick out of Cai Zelin, Wang Zhen, who filled places three and four at the London 2012 Olympic Games, or the more recently arrived Bian Tongda.
Bian, 22, won the Chinese national title in March and set his best on the same Taicang course in 2013.
If Russia and China are to slip up, who among the rest is ready to capitalise?
Based on form, it might not be necessity to look any further than Japan, who has never won a medal of any description in the history of the Cup.
Yusuke Suzuki set a Japanese record for the second year running when he walked 1:18:17 in February.
Far from being the rabbit at major events that he once was, Suzuki now has power and belief to stay with the leaders for the entire race.
Compatriots Isamu Fujisawa, Koiricho Morioka and Takumi Saito have all walked swift 2014 races, and Eiki Takahashi is the 21-year-old new kid on the block. Japan’s rising son saw him take a nearly two minutes off his previous best when coming second to Suzuki at Kobe.
Given the Japanese team has the least travel time to Taicang, and is used to weather being on much the same latitude, it suggests that a team bronze, if not better, is theirs for the taking.
Of the outsiders, Poland has entered a strong unit befitting the country of race walking legend Robert Korzeniowski, the multiple Olympic and world champion.
Rafal Fedaczynski set a personal best 1:20:18 when coming second at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge race in Podebrady last month, which is not bad for a 33-year-old, slicing nearly a minute off his best.
It’s been a long time coming, but India too are on the march.In fact, for a nation whose population is only slightly behind that of the hosts, it’s a surprise they have failed to produce top walkers until now, but they now have four with a decent pedigree.
Basanta Bahadur Rana has a best of 1:21:29, and there four others who should be there or thereabouts, providing they don’t let the occasion get to them.
Nerves will not be an issue for Matej Toth. The Slovakian race walker broke his previous best when he won on home soil in Dudince in March, crossing the line in 1:19:48 at Dudince.
The 2010 World Cup winner over 50km knows all about heat which he conquered to triumph in Chihuahua four years ago.
Fifth in last August’s World Championships, the former journalism student is in the shape to also write his name into the 20km record book.
Among possibly the more distant outsiders worth a mention is Kevin Campion. The Frenchman has eaten into his own best this year while Hyunsub Kim, from Korea, won the Asian Championships in Japan earlier this year with a national record 1:19:24.
Ivan Losev and Nazar Kovalenko, from Ukraine, have likewise posted good times and are among six men who have gone under 80 minutes this year.
Time to the Tallent show?
The men’s 50km kicks off the weekend at 8am local time on Saturday morning and is likely to be a war of attrition. He who blinks first suffers most. In recent World Cups, the last lap of the 25 2km revolutions has tended to produce a winner that underlined metronomic pace and a good stopwatch.
Absent in Taicang is Ireland’s Moscow 2013 gold medallist Rob Heffernan, who has opted for the 20km as preparation for the European Championships, but this possibly leaves the way open for Australia’s Jared Tallent to finally stand tallest on the podium.
The Australian has two Olympic Games silvers, two World Championship bronzes and a World Cup bronze and silver to go with a string of super-fast marks over 50km. He is missing only one thing: a gold medal.
The proud record proves the native Victorian rarely falters on the big stage, and is the out-and-out favourite in a city that he knows well and a venue he has graced many times over the past 10 years.
However, the trouble with finding form at the distance is there are few willing to walk it until they have to.
Marks for 2014 are scarce, although China’s Wang Zhendong’s 3:47:18 is one of them, even if he is still some way off Tallent’s 3:36:53 best.
Something of a guide to Russian chances was posted in Sochi last month when they picked the first three past the post in the Russian Winter Championships at the 35km distance. Moscow 2013 50km silver medallist Mikhail Ryzhov, Ivan Noskov and Alexey Bartsaykin got the nod, and the last is an intriguing entry.
Bartsaykin still holds the World Cup junior men’s 10km record set in 2008 but, despite only one moderate 50km mark to his name, maybe this is his chance to show the pedigree that saw him cut a swathe through the ranks as a youngster.
Italy has a reasonable team with the experienced Jean-Jacques Nkouloukidi and Federico Tontodonati the pick of their four.
A Mexican duo keep that nation’s great walking tradition alive while Ivan Banzeruk’s best of 3:47:35 is a single second faster than his Ukrainian teammate Serhiy Budza and offers hope the country can repeat their 2012 team bronze at this distance.
However, if there was to be an award for the most self-motivated walker at the World Cup, it would go hands down to Jesus Angel Garcia.
The Spaniard is competing in his 11th straight World Cup. He won it in 1997 when he blitzed through a snow storm in Podebrady and has a string of firsts in major competitions including IAAF World Championships gold in 1993, and has eight top-six finishes in the Cup.
With his unique high-arm punching style, Garcia – who will turn 45 in October – continually shows that age is no barrier.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF