Chinese race walker Liu Hong (© AFP / Getty Images)
World record-holder Liu Hong registered her third-fastest time on Sunday (6) when convincingly winning in Huangshan at the Chinese National Race Walking Grand Prix, which doubled as the trials for the Olympic Games in Rio.
The women’s 20km races started at 14:30 local time, the same time the event is scheduled at the Olympics. With the temperature soaring up to 25C, the 28-year-old Liu pulled ahead after five kilometres and kept extending her advantage before hitting the line with a world-leading time of 1:25:56.
“I did not think too much about the time before the race, but after three kilometres I found myself in very good shape, so I just sped up to take the sole lead,” said the world champion. “Later my coach asked me to try to break the 1:26 barrier so I just started to walk even faster in the final kilometres.”
Hailing from the city of Huangshan in China’s Anhui Province, where the competition was held, local race walker Lu Xiuzhi finished second in 1:28:07.
“Competing in my home town brought no extra pressure on me,” said the world silver medallist. “But it just was not my day. I tried to follow Liu when she walked out, but soon I found it was too difficult to keep up.”
Olympic bronze medallist Qieyang Shenjie was neck-and-neck with Lu for most of the race, but she failed to keep up on the final one-kilometre lap and was later surpassed by dark horse Yang Jiayu.
Lagging four seconds behind Yang, Qieyang finished fourth in 1:28:16 and burst into tears after crossing the line.
According to the qualification rules set by the Chinese Athletics Association, the top five finishers in each event will be added to a primary selection list. Both the athletes’ form and previous performances in major international competitions will be taken into consideration when the CAA selects the final squad. But only in rare occasions will the top three from the trial be replaced by the others from the primary list.
Having turned 20 just last month, Yang – the silver medallist in the junior 10km at the 2014 World Race Walking Cup – cut more than eight minutes from her personal best in what was her first 20km race at the senior level.
Nie Jingjing, who finished 17th at the World Championships last summer, came home fifth in 1:31:26.
Youth vs experience
In the men’s 50km, 25-year-old Wang Zhendong improved his PB to a world-leading 3:41:02 to win a high-quality race.
But the big surprise came from veteran Han Yucheng. The 37-year-old, who competed at the 2004 Olympics and came out of retirement last year, finished second in 3:42:43, the fourth-fastest time of his career.
Yu Wei, who finished seventh at the World Championships, took third place with a PB of 3:42:54. Zhang Hang and Liu Jian also set PBs in fourth and fifth respectively with times of 3:43:31 and 3:47:51.
In the men’s 20km race staged on Saturday, world silver medallist Wang Zhen took the lead after 12 kilometres and never looked back before clocking 1:19:12 to wrap up the victory in style. Olympic champion Chen Ding finished 20 seconds adrift in second place.
Cai Zelin, the fourth-place finisher at the 2012 Olympics, came home third in 1:19:48. It meant that China’s three 20km representatives at the last Olympics filled the top three places in this year’s trial race.
Wang Kaihua finished fourth in 1:19:51 while Li Tianlei was a remote fifth in 1:21:39.
“My performance today is just OK,” said Wang, the Olympic bronze medallist. “I just followed my strategy and burst out in the last seven or eight kilometres.
“I failed to win the gold medal in Beijing. I think that means I am still not good enough,” added the Asian record-holder. “It would be the second time for me to compete at the Olympic Games, and might also be the last time. I would certainly try my best in Rio.”
Chen couldn't help shedding tears after the race. In 2012 Chen became the first male Chinese race walker to win Olympic gold but finished only ninth in Beijing last August and later suffered injuries in the winter training session.
“To be honest, I was under huge pressure,” said the 23-year-old. “I have been through ups and downs over the past four years. It's not easy.”
Like Chen, 24-year-old Cai has also been hampered by a recent injury. He injured his left shoulder one month ago and has since struggled to train properly.
“It was the most important race in my career and the most difficult one,” said Cai. “I want to compete at the Olympics and so do the others. I am very happy that I never gave up and kept pushing myself during the race.”
“I am happy because the final time 1:19:12 is a good time since the weather is not very good,” said Sandro Damilano, coach of Wang and Cai. “There is a lot of humidity. In fact, I am more satisfied with Cai because the third place adds more possibility for him to be selected for Rio.
“Wang Zhen has the possibility to win the gold medal in Rio,” he added. “But in my mind he still needs to improve his technique a little bit. In Beijing he received two cards, so he still needs to work on it.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF