Chen Ding of China celebrates as he wins gold in the 20km Race Walk at the London 2012 Olympics (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Taicang, China

Chen Ding the star attraction in Taicang

Olympic 20km race walk champion Chen Ding will be the star attraction at the 2015 IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Taicang as he aims to maintain local race walkers’ dominance in the south-east Chinese city on Friday (1).

It will be the fourth edition of event since the Challenge meeting was first launched in 2011 with Taicang also hosting the IAAF World Race Walking Cup last year.

Chinese athletes have swept all the titles in the previous three editions. But the 22-year-old Chen has never managed to grab a gold medal here so far.

Chen’s only outing this year was in March when he clocked 1:21:11 to finish third at the National Race Walk Grand Prix in Beijing.

After the race, Chen commented adversely about the 1km laps outside of the Bird’s Nest Stadium but in Taicang he will be walking on the familiar 2km-lap course where he set his personal best of 1:17:40 in 2012 when finishing second behind teammate Wang Zhen.

Chinese record-holder and two-time winner Wang will not be in Taicang this time but Chen will be joined by seven other Chinese race walkers in the field.

The 21-year-old Wang Kaihua, the sixth-place finisher at the 2011 IAAF World Youth Championships, improved his best to 1:21:22 when finishing fourth in Beijing in March, while the 19-year-old Gao Wenkui also registered a best of 1:23:37 in Beijing following his junior 10km title at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Taicang last year.

The 24-year-old Li Tianlei will be another man to watch. In spite of his slightly modest best of 1:21:28, Li has been trained by the same coach as Chen and has out-raced Chen several times in domestic events.

Tallent back in Taicang

The strongest opponent for the Chinese contingent could be experienced Australian Jared Tallent.

The 30-year-old is the only non-Chinese athlete that has ever snatched a medal in Taicang when it has been part of the Challenge, when he finished third in 1:20:41 in 2013.

The three-time Olympic medallist is clearly in good form at the moment as well and triumphed on home soil at the 2015 Oceania Race Walking Championships, also an IAAF Race Walk Challenge meeting, in February in what he described as a training outing, although he also failed to finish in the Mexican city of Chihuahua last month.

Tallent is returning to Taicang to race over 20km for the fourth successive time. He also finished third in the IAAF World Race Walking Cup 50km 12 month ago.

"Taicang is among my favourite circuits. Events here are always well organised, highly competitive and the actual circuit is very good," said Tallent on his last visit to the city.

Eider Arevalo will go to Taicang with his morale boosted by a recent victory.

The 22-year-old Colombian record-holder won in 1:20:41 in Rio Maior, Portugal, two weeks ago and was less than a minute outside his best.

Japan’s Kai Kobayash could also be a threat. The 22-year-old clocked a best time of 1:19:12 to finish fourth at the highly competitive Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan last month where fellow Japanese Yusuke Suzuki improved Frenchman Yohann Diniz’s short-lived world record from 1:17:02 to 1:16:36.

There are three more sub-1:20 race walkers in the men’s field: South Korean record-holder Kim Hyunsub (1:19:13), Japan's Satoshi Maruo (1:19:42) and Ukraine's Ivan Losev (1:19:33).

Sun looking to shine

Chinese race walkers' advantage has been even more overwhelming in the women’s 20km race as they have grabbed the top three places in all the previous three races.

The two-time winner Liu Hong will skip the event this year as she has been training in Europe but there is a strong five-woman local group, headed by defending Taicang champion Sun Huanhuan and Asian record-holder Lu Xiuzhi.

Sun recorded a best of 1:27:36 when she upset Olympic medallist Qieyang Shenjie and National Games champion Lu to win in Taicang last year.

But retaining the title will be a tough job for the 25-year-old as she will be facing an in-form Lu, who trimmed almost two minutes from her previous best to set an Asian record of 1:25:12 in Beijing last month.

Lu’s mark in the Chinese capital makes her the favourite in Taicang and the sixth-place finisher at the 2012 Olympic Games will be looking to upgrade from the two silver medals she earned in 2012 and 2013 and, maybe, lead another sweep of the podium for the hosts.

China’s Nie Jingjing improved her best to 1:27:51 when finishing third at the National Race Walk Grand Prix in Beijing while the 20-year-old Hou Yongbo is also a serious contender following her 1:29:25 victory in Nomi last month.

Viktoria Madarasz of Hungary could be the biggest overseas threat to the Chinese, but is some way adrift of the local race walkers on the paper. The 29-year-old has a best time of 1:30:57 set in 2014.

The IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Taicang has usually been held in March or April but the event has been consistently bothered by rain.

The weather forecast for Friday suggests cloudy yet clear conditions, but temperatures could vary considerably and are likely to be hot, about 20C.

There is also a good quality domestic field for the men’s 50km race walk on Saturday but this is not part of the IAAF Race Walk Challenge.

Vincent Wu for the IAAF