Wang Zhen in the 20km race walk at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
As any athlete knows, it’s one thing to have a good race now and then, but getting the job done frequently over five years makes you something special.
Wang Zhen is that something special.
Winning the IAAF Race Walking Challenge and the $25,000 that went with it was icing on the cake of an Olympic 20km triumph four years after the Chinese took bronze in 2012.
In between, Wang pocketed a silver medal at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 on home soil, followed by individual gold at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in May.
In fact, since his first World Championships silver in 2011, his finishes outside the top three number just two: a warm-up sixth at the 2014 World Cup, and a surprise disqualification at the IAAF World Championships Moscow 2013.
In Rio, the 25-year-old, coached by Italian Sandro Damilano, bided his time for the first 16 kilometres, then smoothly upped the gears to steal a 30-metre lead over compatriot Cai Zelin and win with seeming ease.
There was no drama, no final sprint – just the components needed to make the top of the podium.
For the thrill seekers, the head-to-head excitement of a close finish was reserved for the women’s Olympic race.
Wang has been around a while, but the rise of Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez is meteoric by comparison. As a result, the Mexican is the richer for winning the women’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge, as well as two brilliant medals in 2016.
Just four years ago, the 27-year-old was distraught when she missed the London Olympics, but not as a race walker.
A knee injury put paid to her hopes in the boxing ring of all sports, but a 180-degree turn later, Gonzalez fought her way to first in Rome at the World Race Walking Team Championships, and was inches from a second win in Rio.
Instead, it was the irrepressible Liu Hong who held sway with devastating leg speed over the final 200 metres to breast the tape just two seconds ahead.
This was the third of three firsts in the career of the Chinese champion, but the most important.
Liu added to a pile on the medals going all the way back to silver at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, and was also victorious in the La Coruna leg of the Race Walking Challenge in May – the scene of her world record last year, and her third victory in a row in the northern Spanish port.
New stars shine
The brilliant Liu is a key element of the established order, but 2016 heralded a wave of new kids on the winning block.
Wang and Cai secured the first two medals in Rio, but Dane Bird-Smith took bronze on his Olympic debut.
The Australian started the Race Walking Challenge with a first in February in a personal best, and ended it with another improvement and third at the Olympics.
Finishing behind the son of Olympian Dave Smith in Adelaide was South African Lebogang Shange with a national record of 1:20:06, helping him to an eventual fourth place in the challenge standings.
Andres Chocho won the South American Race Walking Cup at 20km at home in Guayaquil, Ecuador at the beginning of April and before that set a South American 50km race walk record in 3:42:57 to win the second challenge race in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in March.
It also paved the way to a consolation third place in the challenge standings, despite a disappointing Olympics when he was disqualified.
But as a husband and coach, Chocho was also a winner for wife Erica de Sena.
Two years ago the Brazilian’s personal best was a so-so 1:30:43. By coming fourth at the World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome, she now boasts nearly four minutes quicker – the best part of a kilometre in front of the 2014 version of de Sena.
With the weight of 200 million compatriots on her back, she still managed to finish seventh in Rio and fourth in the challenge standings.
Alvaro Martin stepped out of the shadows of fellow Spaniard Miguel Lopez, when the European under-23 silver medallist got the biggest win of his young career when he triumphed in Rio Maior in April in 1:21:03.
With the bit firmly between his teeth, the 21-year-old recorded a PB of 1:19:36 to finish third at the World Race Walking Team Championships.
Brits break through
It has been a long while – 42 years actually – since Great Britain featured in the top three of any senior race walk standings, but Tom Bosworth is doing his best to plug the chasm.
The 26-year-old won in Dudince with a British record of 1:20:41, smashing the previous record of 1:22:03 from 1988, two years before he was born. Bosworth even had the luxury of high-fiving spectators over the last few metres in the Slovakian spa town.
But it was at the Olympics that the 26-year-old caught the eye as he led for 15 kilometres of the 20km event after taking on what he later described as a slow pace.
Bosworth paid for it, but rallied to finish sixth and shave another 28 seconds off the British mark.
In a landmark year for British race walking, compatriot Callum Wilkinson won the world U20 title in July.
Wilkinson was ecstatic with his fourth-place finish in the junior 10km at the World Race Walking Team Championships in May. But in Bydgoszcz, he needed to be peeled off the ceiling after breaking a 52-year duck since Britain last won a global race-walking title.
Tallent and Toth at the top
But even as the new were rung in, there was still plenty to chime about race walking’s veteran vanguard – that’s if you can label a 32-year-old a ‘veteran’.
Following the later disqualification of Italian Alex Schwazer for an anti-doping rule violation, Jared Tallent was crowned winner of the World Race Walking Team Championships 50km. One month after that race, he received his biggest medal ever without taking single step.
At a special ceremony in Melbourne, Tallent was belatedly awarded the gold medal from the 2012 Olympics following the disqualification of Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin for an anti-doping rule violation.
A former challenge winner, Tallent lived up to his name and placed second overall in this year’s standings. And before that, he took a fourth Olympic medal when finishing second to Matej Toth in Rio.
Toth has also been slowly building to his moment in the sun.
A surprise 2010 World Race Walking Cup winner in Chihuahua, the Slovak’s World Championships-winning performance in Beijing last year was less of an eye opener. And when it comes to the waiting game, there’s none better than the 33-year-old, who bided his time until the 48th kilometre before surfing home next to the Pontal seashore.
The 50km race walk in Rio proved to be one of the most dramatic athletics events of the Games. World record-holder Yohann Diniz built up a significant lead in the early stages before being caught by Canada’s Evan Dunfee after the half-way point. Dunfee looked destined for a medal before being passed by Tallent, then Toth and finally Japan’s Hirooki Arai.
Dunfee didn’t end the year empty-handed, though. Along with world bronze medallist Ben Thorne, national record-holder Inaki Gomez and 50km specialist Mathieu Bilodeau, Canada underlined their status as a rising race-walking nation by taking team silver in the 20km at the World Race Walking Team Championships.
So what green shoots of optimism from smaller race-walking nations?
Cue appearances in the Race Walking Challenge top 10 for Guatemala’s Mirna Ortiz, Bolivia’s Angela Castro and Hungary’s Viktoria Madarasz.
The men’s Olympic 20km saw encouraging finishes for Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Iran and Vietnam. Ethiopia made an appearance in the women’s 20km, while Kenya, Peru and Bolivia again featured.
It bodes well for a sport that needed a breath of fresh air to blow through it in 2016.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF