German race walker Christopher Linke (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Podebrady, Czech Republic

Close contests expected in Podebrady

Last weekend the Americas got a chance to show their worth in Lima; this weekend the focus of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge is the European Race Walking Cup in Podebrady on Sunday (21).

Podebrady is fast becoming a home from home for the world’s finest race walkers. Many are revisiting the town 50 kilometres east of Prague for the second time in just over a month to compete on the same park course following the European Athletics permit meeting on 8 April. And on a fast one-kilometres loop, there’s a good chance those who did well then will repeat the feat now.

If form again has anything to do with it, the men’s 20km could be a three-way battle between Christopher Linke, Kevin Campion and Tom Bosworth.

Linke removed 20 seconds from his personal best to breeze home in 1:18:59 in the April Podebrady meet, his first race of the year. The German, who finished fifth at the Olympic Games last year, has recently been altitude training in Flagstaff.

France’s Campion has returned to form after a disappointing 49th at the Olympics to also record a PB, 1:20:28.

Bosworth has also been training in Flagstaff where he has been building endurance to go with his prodigious speed. Before that, the British record-holder notched a comfortable 1:20:58 to finish second at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Rio Maior last month.

World champion Miguel Angel Lopez and fellow Spaniard Alvaro Martin will add to the clamour at the front, while Ukraine also has a strong quartet.

For the first time at a major race walking event, the words ‘Authorised Neutral Athlete’ appears next to a name on the start list. Sergei Shirobokov is the one Russian cleared to compete in the 20km, and after a national U20 record of 1:18:26 at the Russian Winter Championships in Sochi in February, the world U18 champion boasts the fastest time by a European this year.

World and Olympic 50km champion Matej Toth had been hoping to compete in the 20km in Podebrady, but the Slovak race walker has withdrawn as a precaution after picking up a minor leg injury.

The men’s 50km gets things underway at 8am on Sunday morning, and as is often the case with the longer event, only a handful of the 32-man field have completed the distance so far this year.

Again, Ukraine has depth: Igor Glavan has a 3:40:39 PB, and Ivan Banzeruk was fifth at the 2014 European Championships.

Teodorico Caporaso finished fourth at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships last year and leads a strong Italian team for Podebrady.

Finland's Aleksi Ojala sports an impressive 3:46:25 PB from last year, while Carl Dohmann looks to be the best of the German trio.

But given the absence of some of Europe’s top 50km race walkers, there’s also a chance that an unknown could upset the odds.

In fact, there is something of a try-out for a number of teams sporting athletes toeing the line for the first time at a major race.

Although Spain and Italy will account for more than a fifth of the 243 athletes, the Spanish 20km women’s team, for example, has Julia Tacacs as the only established race walker in the red and yellow vest.

Likewise, Italy has included 2009 European Cup winner Giorgio Rubino for the men's 20km, but that was eight years ago in Metz.

Saying that, team-mate Antonella Palmisano's back should be a distant blue speck to the rest of the field in the women’s 20km by the finish.

A sharp 41:57.29 for 10,000m back home in Orvieto towards the end of last month suggests the 2010 U20 World Cup winner is in good shape to back up her excellent fourth place at last year’s Olympics and a 1:27:51 personal best before that in 2014.

But if there are to be challengers, Portugal, Ukraine and, of all countries, Lithuania are the likely bets.

With no race walking success as such, the Baltic state now has three who will challenge for female team honours, and two of them literally form a twin spearhead.

Živilé and Monika Vaiciukevičiūté finished third and fifth respectively at the Podebrady meeting last month, both setting PBs.

Supported by Brigita Virbalytė-Dimšienė – the fastest woman this year on the entry lists – a country of fewer than 3,000,000 could make a senior team podium for the first time.

Ines Henriques and Ana Cabecinha rarely disappoint for Portugal, and the Ukrainian quartet headed by Nadiya Borovska should be up there, at least in the early stages.

There’s much to set pulses racing, although the hosts have suffered one disappointment already when poster star Anežka Drahotova was ruled out of the Czech team through injury.

The 2014 world U20 champion is suffering from acute back pain, and is reduced to becoming one of many spectators around Lázeňský Park in the hope she can take her place on the start line at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 in August.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF