Yohann Diniz celebrates his world record in the 50km race walk at the European Championships in Zurich (© Getty Images)
If it rains and it’s got the word ‘European’ tagged to a major race walk, Yohann Diniz normally wins it.
If one heel-and-toe performance stood out in 2014, it was the Frenchman’s 50km world record through puddles and over cobbles on the streets of Zurich for a hat-trick of European titles in August.
In 2006, he appropriately stormed to victory in a Gothenburg downpour while adding Barcelona’s version four years ago in between.
His track 50,000m world record in 2011 was accompanied by spots of rain as well, and while World Championships and Olympic Games success eludes the 36-year-old, this race triggers something that makes him invincible.
In Zurich he stamped his intent from the gun, tracked only by Russian Mikhail Ryzhov before recording 3:32:33 to knock nearly two minutes from the previous 3:34:14 mark set by Russian Denis Nizhegorodov in Cheboksary in 2008.
To put that into context, Diniz walked a marathon in 2:59:00, give or take a few seconds. There are many recreational runners who would be delighted to get under the yardstick three hours – but Diniz then added another 8km on top.
Had he not checked his stride to wave two flags, France’s and Portugal – the latter in tribute to his recently departed grandmother – Diniz would have shaved off a few more seconds.
Slovak Matej Toth passed the tiring Ryzhov for silver and a national record, and fellow Russian Ivan Noskov took bronze, also in a personal best time.
Ryzhov probably thought he too was a rain man after winning the 50km at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Taicang, China, four months earlier, hence the lightning pace alongside Diniz.
Also turning a leaden World Cup sky into silver lining was Ukraine’s Ruslan Dmytrenko, the surprise winner of the 20km in a 1:18:37 national record.
That race was a fascinating duel until the last kilometre when Dmytrenko finally broke the resistance of home boy Cai Zelin, and for Ukraine it was testimony to their rising status as a race walking power.
Medallists in 2012 for the first time, they won 20km team silver and 50km bronze, and after Dmytrenko’s fourth in the 20km at Zurich netted him the overall IAAF Race Walking Challenge title, Ukrainian race walking could puff out its chest while looking east at fierce rivals Russia in a tense year on the political front.
The women’s Challenge winner was the consistent Liu Hong.
China’s best had to settle for second in Taicang, but World Cup winner Anisya Kirdyapkina had no other marks from the competition Challenge, so she missed out, as did Elmira Alembekova, who nonetheless was more than compensated when she became European champion.
It meant second place in the Race Walking Challenge went to Italy’s rising star Eleonora Giorgi, whose 2014 progress was remarkable.
Her 1:27:05 in finishing fifth but a mere three seconds outside a medal at the World Cup was nearly three minutes better than her best 2013 mark and shaved four seconds off the national record.
Italy, Russia and China have been race walking giants for decades. But for those searching for green shoots of growth in other parts of the world, look no further than South America.
Ecuador, or rather Olympic and world champion Jefferson Perez, along with Colombia have already graced the world stage, but newcomers Peru, Bolivia and Brazil added to previous success from central America’s Mexico and Guatemala.
In February, Kimberly Garcia won the South American Championships 20km for Peru in Cochabamba; at 3000m above sea level, it was undoubtedly the highest major race walk.
The host nation’s Claudia Balderrama was second, with Colombia’s Sandra Arenas victor at the Chihuahua, Mexico, Challenge races a week later.
Brazil’s Caio Bonfim confirmed his junior promise by winning Rio Maior’s Challenge in April and La Coruna in May, was third in the Dudince 20km in March behind the sparkling Toth and Australian Jared Tallent, who was near but not quite up to form from previous years.
Bonfim’s 19-year-old countrywoman Erica de Sena was second in Rio Maior before repeating the feat in Podebrady in April.
Inspired by Olympic silver medallist Erick Barrondo’s Coruna win in the men’s 20km, Guatemalan team-mate Mirna Ortiz was second behind Liu Hong, and took the prestigious scalp of Giorgi in the process.
Czech teenage sensation Anezka Drahotova kept her powder dry to score junior honours.
The strikingly tall race walker doubles as champion cyclist and steeplechaser. She made an instant impact with cap back to front and led the World Championships in Moscow last year.
And to prove it was no flash in the pan, the 19-year-old’s 1:28:13 for third in Lugano behind Liu and Giorgi, not to mention winning Podebrady, meant the long-striding Czech was the favourite for the junior 10km title at the World Cup.
Sure enough she led at half way only to be hauled in by China’s Duan Dandan and Yang Jiayu. Nonetheless, Drahotova’s 43:40 was still a national junior record in another tarmac scorcher on a damp day.
She quickly shelved the disappointment to go better, a lot better, at the IAAF World Junior Championships two months later in Eugene.
Her winning 42:47.25 was not only good for a ratified world junior record, but the 1:15 margin of victory over China’s Wang Na was the biggest in the event’s 28-year history, and second place still scored a personal best.
At the other end of the age scale, and competing in his sixth European Championships at the age of 44, 1993 world champion Jesus Angel Garcia finished eighth in the 50km at the European Championships in 3:45:41, the Spaniard’s fastest time since winning world bronze in 2009.
Another notable race was the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan in March.
A decent 1:21:50 was still only good for 10th, with winner Hyunsub Kim underlining Korea’s credentials (1:19:24) to set a national record.
Second-place finisher Yusuke Suzuki was tired from the exertions of a second Japanese record on the trot at the national championships in Kobe a month earlier where he notched a fine 1:18:17.
But only 49 seconds separated the next nine finishers with Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith followed by walkers from India and Kazakstan to emphasise the sport’s global growth
The 2014 season was to provide more than decent return for Bird-Smith, who kick-started the race walking year by winning the Oceania 20km (1:22:39) in a Hobart heat bath at the beginning of February, and after Nomi scored a fine personal best 1:20:27 coming 14th in a super-fast World Cup 20km in Taicang.
Lebogang Shange flew the flag for South Africa with fourth in the Dudince 20km as well as winning the African Championships in Marrakech in August.
Incidentally, Samuel Ireri Gathimba was second in that race having set a 1:23:59 PB just a month earlier. The significance of that in world terms? Gathimba is from Kenya.
The kings of distance running have dabbled at race walking in the past, but if there are others like Gathimba who can get the bit between their teeth, who knows that damage they could inflict on the sport's traditional powers in the future?
Paul Warburton for the IAAF