German race walker Christopher Linke (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

For Linke, a move down in distance is a big step forward

Like middle-distance runners who take on the marathon in the hope of extending their careers, senior race walkers usually start at 20km and graduate to the long-slog 50km.

Christoper Linke is an exception. He has gone from long to short.

As a result, the German champion is on short odds to claim a medal over 20km at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 after something of a transformation.

The 28-year-old admits he’s in the form of his life thanks to a tougher mental approach to go with coaching by 1983 world champion Ronald Weigel, and a clutch of confidence-boosting performances such as the gold he claimed at the European Race Walking Cup in May.

Linke pretty much showboated that last kilometre in Podebrady after building a commanding lead. It was his second victory in consecutive months at the picturesque Czech spa town aptly 50 kilometres east of Prague.

He also won the European Athletics permit meeting on 8 April as well as removing 20 seconds from his personal best to breeze home in 1:18:59.

There was no PB in the second effort on 21 May, but he was posing for photographs by the time world champion Miguel Angel Lopez hove into view 52 seconds later for second place.

At this level, that’s an impressive margin.

Compare it to 12 seconds between China’s victorious Wang Zhen and teammate Cai Zelin at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and it brings Linke’s achievement into full focus.

It might be argued the European Cup is relatively low key, but at the 2015 edition Lopez could only forge a 29-second gap over the formidable Matej Thoth to win – and that in Murcia, Lopez’s home town.

The irony of Linke’s easy win over Lopez in Podebrady is not lost on the German, who has an eyeball-busting tattoo on his right arm proclaiming: ‘I have a dream’ sitting on top of the Olympic rings, and all in full colour.

It was the Spaniard’s world win in Beijing in 2015 that made Linke realign the realisation of that dream.

While Lopez was standing on top of the podium, the German was nearly two kilometres back and forced to settle for 38th.

Linke admits he needed to get his head around the problem.

“I've changed several things in my training after my failure at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing,” he explained.

“Since then I've been working with a mental trainer, so I can motivate myself in training and focus on competitions. Due to my improved health management, I've been able to train injury-free and to improve and control my training since then.”

Strong guidance from Wiegel

If the problem had been in his head, it had nothing to do with the calibre of his coach.

Weigel can look back on a stellar and somewhat interesting career. The very first world 50km champion in 1983 and 1988 Olympic silver medallist has been Linke’s coach for 10-plus years.

The protege reasons the lustre from that glittering career has to rub off somewhere along the line.

“Since Ronald Weigel himself was a successful race walker, 50km world champion and three-time Olympic medallist, he shares his positive experiences with the athletes,” Linke added.

“For more than 10 years we've been working closely together and this is why we have a good relationship of trust.”

Even so, it looked for a long time the 1.90m (6ft 3in) race walker was more likely to succeed at the demanding 50km.

Third at the European Race Walking Cup in 2011, followed by third at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Saransk, Russia, a year later, put him on the periphery of a medal, but he now admits racing 50km was more a case of needs-must pragmatism than a chosen path.

“I always liked the 20km more than the 50km, especially because the speed and short distance is more fun for me,” he said.

“At the beginning of my career I focused more on the 50km because the German qualifying standard of 3:52:30 for the distance is much easier to achieve for such a young race walker than the standard of 1:21:45 for 20km. In this way I could qualify and receive sponsorship.”

After Beijing and the big think, Linke went back Podebrady in April in 2016 and finished within 80 minutes for the first time, to notch 1:19:19.

A year and a day later, and in the same place and on the same course, he squeezed under 79 minutes for his current PB, and in between came a heartening fifth place at the Olympics as a medal contender until the last two kilometres when Wang and Cai lit the afterburners to take gold and silver.

Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith was third in 1:19:37 with the German a not-too-distant 23 seconds back.

‘I'm firmly convinced that I will fight for a medal’

He agrees that finding fifth gear at the end in The Mall could make the difference to his chances, but Linke is looking forward to coming back to the UK’s capital city after placing 24th at the 2012 Olympics – and hopefully making up two spots from Rio to a medal.

“My biggest rivals are the top 10 of the Olympics in Rio last year,” he said. “I still remember the fast course from 2012 and that's why we have to expect fast times.

“I hope the atmosphere will be as good as at the Olympics five years ago, especially because I'm looking forward to the support of my family, friends and German fans on the course.

“I'm firmly convinced that I will fight for a medal. At the end, form on the day will be the deciding factor.”

On which point, Linke finds it hard to suppress inner delight at finding himself in the best form of his life.

“At 28 I'm at the best age for a race walker.

“I've been training for almost 12 years now and that's why I'm more professional and experienced than ever before. Furthermore, I'm currently at the best mental and physical form.

“German race walking was more promoted before (East and West) reunification (in 1990). After that, talents were less selected and promoted and that's why German race walkers couldn't keep up with the strong international rivals.

“However, we can notice a change in German male race walking for the last years,” he added. “Hopefully, I can improve it further still.”

Paul Warburton for the IAAF