Liu Hong wins the 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)
At the fifth time of asking, and after three trips to the podium in Berlin, Daegu and Moscow to pick up bronze or silver medals, world record-holder Liu Hong fulfilled her status as the favourite and finally struck gold in Beijing.
In doing so she has assured herself iconic status as the first Chinese winner at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015.
Her winning time of 1:27:45 was more than three minutes outside her world record of 1:24:38 but Friday’s race was always about winning, not a fast time. The prevailing temperature of between 25-28C also mitigated against any superlatives, although the humidity stayed mercifully reasonable at about 45%.
The diminutive 1.61m Liu won by 0.26 on the photo-finish from her slightly taller compatriot and former Asian record-holder Lu Xiuzhi, the latter given the same time as the winner on the results sheet with both times rounded up to the nearest second, for the closest finish in IAAF World Championships history. But there seemed little doubt about the winner from about 300 metres out when Lu seemed to mentally concede the contest.
In what was expected to be an open race for the bronze medal, with the two Chinese race walkers the prohibitive favourites for gold and silver, it was Ukraine’s European silver medallist Lyudmyla Olyanovska who came through to take a delighted third place in 1:28:13.
The race quickly developed a noticeable pattern with Liu and Lu going straight to the front from the gun and being initially shadowed by the tall Czech race walker Anezka Drahotova.
However, Drahotova started to drift away slightly from just after four kilometres and the world junior champion and European bronze medallist then had a mildly traumatic next five kilometres in which she was passed by four athletes before regaining her composure and finishing eighth, the same position she had finished in Moscow two years ago.
Liu and Lu, swapping the lead around, went through 5km in 22:24 and 10km in 44:19.
By the halfway point, they had 29 seconds to spare over a pack of four consisting of Olyanovska, Italy’s Elisa Riguado and Eleonora Giorgi, and Brazil’s Erica de Sena.
The Chinese pair passed 15km in 1:06:24, working together to maintain their lead, but the gap began to close slightly from 14km onwards as Olyanovska started to surge and make her bid for the podium.
With five kilometres to go, Olyanovska was just 21 seconds behind Liu and Lu, with Giorgi and Riguado now walking in single file behind the Ukrainian, and De Sena having dropped away at about 12 kilometres.
The 16th kilometre was crucial for Olyanovksa as she put in a spurt and closed the gap further on Liu and Lu, with Giorgi and Riguado – already with three warnings by 15km, and Giorgi having picked up three yellow cards between 10km and 15km – soon to be disqualified.
However, the Chinese pair soon realised the danger and put in an extra effort in the 17th and 18th kilometres. It was then beyond Olyanovksa to continue her challenge for a higher place on the podium.
Behind the three medallists, Portugal’s two-time IberoAmerican champion Ana Cabecinha came through strongly over the second half of the race, having been ninth at halfway, to take fourth in 1:29:29, her best ever result at a global championship.
Antonella Palmisano restored a modicum of pride to Italian race walking after the red cards shown to her compatriots by finishing fifth in 1:29:34. De Sena held her form after going through a bad patch between 13 and 15 kilometres and was sixth in 1:30:06.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF