Liu Hong and Matej Toth in action at the Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Men's 20km race walk
Of all the athletics disciplines on the Olympic programme, the men’s 20km race walk presents the host nation with the best chance of a gold medal.
In fact, such is their strength and depth in this event, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a Japanese sweep of the podium.
Since winning the world title in Doha two years ago, world champion Tashikazu Yamanishi has raced sparingly but has maintained the winning streak he started back in March 2019. The incredibly consistent 25-year-old has a best of 1:17:15, which puts him fifth on the world all-time list, and has bettered 1:18 on five occasions – more than any other race walker in history.
In his only 20km race last year, he won the hotly contested Japanese Championships by 91 seconds. He successfully defended that title this year, clocking 1:17:20 and winning by 44 seconds.
In both races, Koki Ikeda and Eiki Takahashi occupied the other podium spots, effectively securing their places on the Japanese Olympic team in the process. They are also the last two men to beat Yamanishi, back in February 2019.
Ikeda, who won the 20km at the 2018 World Race Walking Team Championships, has a best of 1:17:25 and finished sixth at the 2019 World Championships. Takahashi’s PB is just one second slower and he finished 10th in Doha two years ago.
While a Japanese sweep is possible, it is by no means a guarantee in such a highly competitive field.
World bronze medallist Perseus Karlstrom has won seven of his past eight races over 20km, most of them against quality international opposition. He set a Swedish record of 1:18:07 in 2019, and in 2020 he won 11 of his 12 races. Sweden has never won an Olympic medal in the men’s 20km race walk, but Karlstrom could be the athlete to end that drought.
China has won the past two Olympic titles in this discipline. Although neither 2012 winner Chen Ding nor 2016 champion Wang Zhen will be in Sapporo, the Chinese team is still a strong one.
Wang Kaihua smashed the Chinese record earlier this year with a world-leading 1:16:54, putting him third on the world all-time list. He started the 2017 season in similar style, though, and wound up in seventh place at the World Championships later that year. He was China’s top finisher again at the 2019 World Championships, placing eighth.
He is joined on the Chinese team by 2016 Olympic silver medallist Cai Zelin and 2016 World Race Walking Team Championships U20 winner Zhang Jun, both of whom have set PBs of 1:17:39 earlier this year.
Authorised neutral athlete Vasiliy Mizinov took silver in Doha and could be in medal contention again in Sapporo. He clocked 1:18:45 in Sochi earlier this year, but in his one race outside of Russia this year, he was a well-beaten second to Germany’s Hagen Pohle in Alytus.
Pohle won’t be in Sapporo, but in Christopher Linke Germany has a genuine medal hope. Linke, who holds the German record of 1:18:42, finished fourth at the World Championships in Doha and fifth at the Olympics in Rio.
Look for Salih Korkmaz to feature at the front of the pack in the early stages. The 24-year-old Turk likes to push the pace from the front, which sometimes works well – as it did when he set a national record of 1:18:42 earlier this year – but sometimes he struggles to maintain the tempo and gets caught by the chase pack.
Spain has selected a strong squad in this event, comprising 2015 world champion Miguel Angel Lopez, European champion Alvaro Martin and European silver medallist Diego Garcia Carrera – who beat Karlstrom in La Coruna last month.
Others who will likely be in contention include 2017 world champion Eider Arevalo of Colombia, 2017 world bronze medallist Caio Bonfim of Brazil and British record-holder Tom Bosworth.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics
Women's 20km race walk
As was the case at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, there’s every chance China could sweep the medals in the women’s 20km race walk.
On that occasion, Liu Hong defied the harsh conditions to claim her third world title, less than two years after giving birth to her daughter Xixi, cementing her status as one of the all-time greats in the event.
Liu won in Rio five years ago and set a world record of 1:24:58 in 2015. She also holds the world record over 50km and was the first woman to crack four hours for the discipline. The 34-year-old will aim to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic race walk titles.
But teammate Yang Jiayu will be a formidable opponent. The 2017 world champion cruised to a world record of 1:23:49 earlier this year, smashing Liu’s mark by 49 seconds. Liu finished a distant second in that race but was rewarded with a PB of 1:24:27, faster than her previous world record. She’ll be keen to make amends for her performance at the 2019 World Championships, where she was disqualified on the last lap after moving into a medal position.
Qieyang Shijie was third in Yang’s world record race in 1:24:45, a mark that puts her fourth on the world all-time list. Although she has never won a global title or broken a world record like her two teammates, Qieyang is a consistent championships performer. She earned world bronze back in 2011, Olympic silver in 2012 and world silver in 2019.
No country has ever swept the medals in the women’s race walks at the Olympics. Similarly, no Asian nation has achieved a medal sweep at the Games. China could make history on both counts in Sapporo, but all it takes is one athlete to drop out – either through disqualification, fatigue or injury – and the plan is scuppered.
Brazil’s Erica de Sena finished fourth at the two most recent World Championships. The 36-year-old, who holds the national record of 1:26:59, will be desperate to finally make it on to a global championships podium.
Sandra Arenas finished right behind De Sena at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. Before heading to Sapporo, the Colombian achieved a confidence-boosting victory in La Coruna.
Glenda Morejon is another South American prospect. The Ecuadorian clocked a stunning 1:25:29 at the age of 19 on her 20km debut back in 2019, beating Liu in the process. She hasn’t come within four minutes of that mark since, but the 21-year-old is undeniably a huge talent.
The host nation is well represented by Kumiko Okada and Nanako Fujii. The duo worked as a team at the 2019 World Championships, eventually finishing sixth and seventh respectively. Okada, the more experienced of the two, holds the national record at 1:27:41, while Fujii has a best of 1:28:58.
Italy’s Antonella Palmisano finished just outside the medals in Rio five years ago but went on to take bronze at the World Championships one year later in a national record of 1:26:36. In her one race of the year so far, the 29-year-old won convincingly at the European Team Championships in Podebrady in 1:27:42.
Eleonora Giorgi, the world 50km bronze medallist, adds further strength to the Italian team. Although she has focused on longer distances in recent years, the 31-year-old is still competitive over 20km. Her main focus will be to avoid getting disqualified, as has happened to her at three major championships.
Australia's Commonwealth champion Jemima Montag has improved to 1:28:50 this year, meaning she is a couple of minutes faster than she was heading into the 2019 World Championships, where she placed 10th. Another top-10 finish beckons.
Spain’s European champion Maria Perez, authorised neutral athlete Elvira Khasanova and Mexico’s Alegna Gonzalez should all feature in the lead pack.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics
Men's 50km race walk
When it was announced last month that world champion Yusuke Suzuki stepped down from Japan’s Olympic team, it threw the men’s 50km race walk wide open.
The 20km world record-holder stepped up in distance two years ago and dominated the 50km event in Doha, becoming the first Japanese athlete to win a global race-walking title. But, citing a lack of form, Suzuki announced in June that he won’t compete in Sapporo.
That’s not to say the race will be lacking in quality, though, as defending champion Matej Toth will duel with world record-holder Yohann Diniz.
The last time both men completed a 50km race in which they clashed was at the 2016 Olympic Games where, in an enthralling race, Toth broke away in the latter stages to win in 3:40:58. Diniz, who led during the early stages before stopping several times with all manner of struggles, eventually finished a respectable eighth.
Diniz, now 43, hasn’t raced since the 2019 World Championships, where he did not finish. Toth was also a DNF on that occasion, but the 38-year-old Slovak race walker returned to action in 2020 and clocked 3:41:15, a world-leading time for the season.
Seven years have passed since Diniz broke the world record with 3:32:33 to win the 2014 European title, but he need not be at his absolute best to be in medal contention. As recently as 2019 he clocked 3:37:43, a time that is faster than the PBs of most entrants heading to Sapporo.
But if recent results from Japan are anything to go by, the host nation’s team will ensure the race in Sapporo will be a punishing war of attrition.
Masatora Kawano set a blistering pace in Takahata at the end of 2019, passing through half way inside sub-3:35 pace. The tempo dropped only slightly in the second half and he went on to win in 3:36:45, smashing Suzuki’s national record to book his spot on Japan’s Olympic team.
Satoshi Maruo finished second in that race in 3:37:39, but had to prove his form at the National Championships in 2021 in order to secure his spot on the team. He duly won in 3:38:42, finishing almost four minutes ahead of the rest of the field. The 29-year-old finished just outside the medals at the 2017 World Championships, so will be highly motivated to make it on to the podium in Sapporo.
Hayato Katsuki, who finished second to Maruo at the National Championships in a PB of 3:42:34, was drafted into Japan’s team as Suzuki’s replacement.
One athlete who knows how to perform in punishing conditions is Evan Dunfee. The Canadian prepared meticulously well for the World Championships in Doha and, with an impressive late-race charge, was rewarded with the bronze medal.
He has been in superb form so far this year, setting Canadian records for 5000m and 10,000m with world-leading marks of 18:39.08 and 38:39.72 respectively.
Portugal’s Joao Vieira held on for the silver medal in Doha, becoming, at age 43, the oldest ever medallist at the World Championships. Now aged 45, he heads to Sapporo for what will be his sixth Olympics and will be hopeful of improving on his 10th-place finish from 2004, his best performance at the Games to date.
Somewhat incredibly, however, Vieira won’t be the oldest or most experienced in the field. Spain’s 1993 world champion Jesus Angel Garcia will be competing at his eighth Olympics – a record tally of appearances for athletics.
The 51-year-old, who has competed at every Olympics since 1992, is still competitive, as shown by his eighth-place finish at the 2019 World Championships.
Spain’s best hopes could rest with Marc Tur, who won at the European Team Championships in Podebrady in 3:47:40.
China’s trio should also be competitive. Luo Yadong, a 3:41:15 performer at best, finished fifth at the 2019 World Championships and won the Chinese 50km title earlier this year. Asian Games silver medallist Wang Qin, who has a PB of 3:38:02, is the fastest race walker on China’s team, but he did not finish in Doha, nor in his most recent 50km race. Bian Tongda, meanwhile, will be contesting his first global championships.
If Andres Chocho can avoid a disqualification – he has notched up eight from his 12 major championships appearances over 50km – he could be in contention.
Other contenders include Ireland’s World Championships fourth-place finisher Brendan Boyce, Australia’s much-improved Rhydian Cowley, European champion Maryan Zakalnytskyy of Ukraine, Norway’s Havard Haukenes, German duo Jonathan Hilbert and Carl Dohmann, and Guatemalan brothers Erick and Bernardo Barrondo.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics