Japan had never won a gold medal in the history of the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships, or a medal of any colour in the 50km race walk, but history was rewritten in Taicang on Saturday (5).
Pre-competition favourite Hirooki Arai paced the race almost from gun to tape and held off a strong challenge from teammate Hayato Katsuki on the final two-kilometre lap to lead a sweep of the podium for Japan. Naturally, Japan wrapped up the team gold with the lowest possible points score.
Arai’s winning mark of 3:44:25 may be more than four minutes shy of his personal best of 3:40:20 achieved three years ago, but he didn’t need a lifetime best to win today. The 27-year-old Katsuki, meanwhile, bettered his career best by more than four minutes to take the silver in 3:44:31 in what was his international championships debut.
Satoshi Maruo lagged 21 seconds behind Katsuki to grab the bronze medal.
It is the fourth consecutive year in which Arai has improved his placement in global competitions. He finished fourth at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, took the bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and silver at the World Championships in London last August.
Japan had sent arguably the strongest 50km team to Taicang with three out of their five entrants boasting a sub-3:45 lifetime best. And their dominance was quite clear from the gun.
The quintet, which also included world bronze medallist Kai Kobayashi and Yuki Ito, took the leading position soon after the race started in cloudy and windy weather conditions. Germany’s Karl Junghannss was the only non-Japanese athlete in the early leading group, with Swedish record-holder Perseus Karlstrom as the sole chaser in front of a crowded following pack.
After the first two kilometres, Karlstrom managed to catch up, leaving Poland’s Rafal Augustyn, Finland’s Aleksi Ojala, New Zealander Quentin Rew and Canada’s Evan Dunfee trailing 10 seconds in arrears.
Ito and Katsuki were the first leaders to slide off the back and the remaining five kept pushing the race to five kilometres in 22:53 and 10 kilometres in 45:27, before Junghannss was shown his second red card and started to drop back.
After the seventh lap, Dutchman Rob Tersteeg became the first athlete to visit the pit lane in the history of the event. The 41-year-old had to serve a five-minute time penalty before rejoining the race, but he was later disqualified for receiving a fourth red disc.
The 27-year-old Dunfee, the fourth-place finisher at the Olympic Games in Rio, managed to claw his way up to the lead pack. When he passed 15 kilometres in 1:08:00, the Canadian was only 11 seconds behind the leading four. He went on to overtake Kobayashi to seize the fourth position and finally reeled in the leading group after 19 kilometres.
But still, Japanese duo Arai and Maruo were taking the front row and controlling the rhythm of the pace. The four leaders remained together for another 10 kilometres and passed 30 kilometres in 2:14:56 while Katsuki and China’s Wang Qin were 45 seconds behind as the chasers.
After 30 kilometres, rain started to fall. The in-form Arai launched a series of surges over the next few laps that Dunfee was unable to keep up with. He was overtaken by Katsuki and Wang, while the chasing duo were still trying to narrow the gap between them and the leading trio.
Arai finally seized a sole lead after 22 laps as Maruo and Karlstrom fell back one after the other. Katsuki climbed back to the second position with Maruo and Wang eight seconds further behind.
The culmination of the race came after Arai took the bell. Katsuki fought back to the front row once again after more than 40 kilometres of chasing. The two Japanese race walkers wanted to break away from the other in a see-saw battle, but Arai took the opportunity when Katsuki walked aside to grab a sponge. Arai walked straight passed the water stations and never looked back before breaking the tape.
“I am very happy,” said Arai. “Some of the top 50km race walkers weren't here, so I had been hoping to win the gold medal.
“Apart from the individual races, there is also the team standings. Before the race, we all believed that as long as we all gave it our best, we will be able to win a medal.”
After covering the final 10 kilometres in 43:39 – by far the fastest 10-kilometre split of any athlete at any point in the race – surprise package Marian Zakalnytstyi of Ukraine cut nearly nine minutes off his PB to take fourth place in 3:44:59 and also help his country to take the team silver. The team bronze went to Poland, who narrowly edged out China.
Vincent Wu for the IAAF