Dane Bird-Smith, Wang Zhen and Evan Dunfee on the podium in Wuzhong (© Organisers)
Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith and Ukraine’s Lyudmyla Olyanovska played pivotal roles for their respective teams at the Taihu Race Walking Multi-Day Competition in Wuzhong, which concluded on Tuesday (29).
The four-day race-walking competition is held in China every year in the early autumn and the team element is just as important as the individual contest. Many national teams take part, but athletes can also form their own multi-national squads.
The race walkers cover a different point-to-point distance on each of the four days. The first stage is over 10.3km, the second is 9.9km, followed by 12km on day three and a final stage of 15.6km. And, similar to the Tour de France, the winners of each stage wear a yellow vest for the next stage.
The men’s contest was extremely close throughout; after four stages and nearly 48km of racing, just six seconds separated the top two athletes overall. Although Wang Zhen won the individual title, Bird-Smith's victory in two of the stages proved crucial in his team's triumph.
China’s world silver medallist Wang and Colombia’s Eider Arevalo led the early leading group in the first stage, held in the city centre of Mudu. Ukrainian duo Nazar Kovalenko and Serhiy Budza were also in the lead pack along with Bird-Smith and Russia’s Kirill Frolov and Petr Trofimov.
Approaching seven kilometres, Arevalo made a move which Wang was unable to cover, opening up a gap of 20 metres which he maintained to the end. He crossed the line in 41:26, eight seconds in front of Wang. Frolov was third in 41:45 with Bird-Smith taking fourth in 41:49.
It meant that ‘X-treme Beef’, the team which Bird-Smith and Arevalo were representing, took an early lead.
The course for the second day, held on a hilly route between Dongshan and Luxiang, was slightly shorter than the first but was much tougher.
Trofimov and China’s Luo Yadong were the early leaders on this stage, but a 10-man pack of strong athletes were always close behind. Luo was still among the leaders in the closing stages as both he and Bird-Smith were pushing the pace.
They crossed the line at the same time, but Luo was handed a 30-second penalty, effectively pushing him down to fifth place on that stage. Bird-Smith’s winning time was 40:31 with Wang taking second in 40:37. Canada’s Evan Dunfee, part of the multi-national Team Asics, placed third in 40:42. Like Luo, Arevalo was also hit with a 30-second penalty and therefore placed sixth in 41:05.
In the overall standings, Wang had a nine-second lead over Bird-Smith in the individual contest, but X-treme Beef extending their lead to more than three minutes in the team competition over P-U Ukraine.
The usual suspects were to the fore in the first part of the third stage, a hilly course in and around Qionglong. And once again, the key moves were made at about the seven-kilometre point.
Bird-Smith, Wang, Arevalo and Ukraine’s Igor Glavan pulled away from the rest of the pack with about five kilometres to go. After two consecutive second-place finishes on the previous days, Wang finally achieved a stage victory, crossing the line in 49:16.
Glavan, who finished fourth at the recent IAAF World Championships, was just three seconds behind, while Bird-Smith maintained his consistency with a third-place finish in 49:25. Dunfee was just two seconds in arrears of the Australian, taking fourth in 49:27.
The conclusion of the penultimate stage meant that Wang doubled his individual overall lead to 18 seconds over Bird-Smith. Arevalo, despite being penalised in both the second and third stages, was still third overall. X-treme Beef, meanwhile, still had a comfortable lead in the team standings.
But going into the final stage – a 15.6km flat stretch starting in Jingting – there was still a lot to play for in the individual contest.
After 27 minutes of race walking, Bird-Smith – knowing that he had 18 seconds to make up on Wang – started to force the pace, but Wang, Glavan, Arevalo and Trofimov caught him.
Trofimov was the first to get detached from the lead group, while Dunfee and Brazil’s Caio Bonfim were pulling away from the chase pack and closing on the leaders. But the drama was only just beginning.
Glavan forged ahead in the closing stages with Wang following about 10 metres behind. Wang and Arevalo then had to serve a 30-second penalty just half a kilometre from the finish while Glavan went on to cross the finish line first.
But then he too was hit with a 30-second penalty, pushing him down to second place for that stage as Bird-Smith was declared the stage winner in 1:05:19. In the revised results, Glavan held on to second place in 1:05:21 while Dunfee was third in 1:05:24.
Despite his penalty, Wang did just enough to hold on to his overall lead in the contest, placing fourth in 1:05:31, giving him an aggregate winning performance of 3:16:58. Bird-Smith was just six seconds adrift overall with 3:17:04, while Dunfee’s consistency in the final three stages was rewarded with an overall third-place finish in 3:18:53.
X-treme Beef held on to the team title with 10:00:19 – the combined clocking of their three best athletes. P-U Ukraine placed second, less than a minute ahead of the Ukrainian national team. With a strong final stage, Team Asics overtook hosts China to place fourth.
Olyanovska turns the tables on Qieyang
Although they weren’t competing, world champion Liu Hong and world silver medallist Lu Xiuzhi strolled alongside training partner Qieyang Shenjie for part of the first stage.
Fired up after missing out on a place on the team for the World Championships, Qieyang made her intentions known from the start. The Olympic bronze medallist took an early lead and never relinquished it, winning the stage in 44:36 from world bronze medallist Lyudmyla Olyanovska, who clocked 44:59.
The pair went on to dominate the remaining three stages, though the order was reversed with Olyanovska winning on each occasion.
Olyanovska pulled away over the final three kilometres of the second stage to win in 42:01, exactly a minute in front of her Chinese rival to move into the overall lead. China, however, was still leading the team contest.
The third stage played out in much the same way as the second, though this time Olyanovska’s winning margin over Qieyang was 19 seconds, the pair clocking 51:31 and 51:50 respectively. Lithuania’s Brigita Virbalyte replicated her finish from the first stage to place third again, clocking 52:49.
Olyanovska bided her time on the fourth and final stage, waiting until nine kilometres to make her move. She went on to win in 1:07:31 from Qieyang, who was hit with a 30-second penalty. Virbalyte was once again third, while Olyanovska’s team-mate Nadiya Borovska placed fourth.
The top four placings on the final stage were reflected in the overall standings with Olyanovska winning from Qieyang, Virbalyte and Borovska.
The strong Ukrainian showing on the final stage proved vital as they overtook long-time leaders China in the team competition, winning with an aggregate clocking of 10:40:03. China was more than a minute adrift with 10:41:12, while ‘LHP’ – a team comprising athletes from Lithuania, Hungary and Poland – took third.
Jon Mulkeen with the assistance of Nicola Maggio (Marcia del Mondo) for the IAAF