China’s record at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships – and its predecessor, the World Race Walking Cup – is mighty impressive.
All the more when taking into account their absence for the first nine editions.
Eventually, the ice-breaker that was Valencia, 20 years after the first competition in 1961, produced a mediocre second-last for the 20km team. None of three 50km race walkers made it to the finish.
But the land of a billion people had got the World Cup bit between their teeth, and quickly made up lost time to become the major heel-and-toe force they are today.
Had China’s athletes been on the starting line from the first edition, it’s a pretty safe bet they would head the all-time rankings and not third behind Russia and Mexico.
But after that first smoke kindled in Valencia, the red dragon started to breathe fire courtesy of its senior women who struck first.
It was gold from day one in Bergen in 1983, when Chinese women took both individual and team honours.
The clean Norwegian air also saw the first of the concrete race tracks, now the norm for major race walk competitions.
It was straight up and down over a two-kilometre circuit, and in the first women’s race over 10km, five were handcuffed together at half way. As the race revved up, Xu Yongjiu broke the chains and drew away to win in 45:13, a dozen seconds better than Soviet Natalya Sharipova.
Xu, just 18 years old at the time, discovered a few minutes later that China had won team gold as well. Guan Ping came sixth, and Yu Heping, ninth, to beat the Soviet Union by a mere two points. It was a contest of the giants that has continued until the present day.
Two years later, the contrast in courses couldn’t have been greater as pancake flat veered to rolling hills outside a village on the Isle of Man.
It mattered little to Yan Hong – although her win was the result of hard-fought duel. She flung herself over the finish line a second ahead of team-mate Guan Ping, who started cautiously as she had done in Bergen, but came like a train in the closing stages.
The team’s Chinese translator was bouncing up and down on the finish line screaming exhortations when Xu, victorious in Norway, had to settle for fifth just 10 seconds behind the winner. China again won team gold from the Soviets, and not before or since has Chinese cool so clearly lost over such a thing as a race walk.
A second undulating course in 1987, this time in New York’s world famous Central Park, proved harder going.
They managed just one individual medal, bronze, thanks to a desperate sprint from Jin Bingjie, who got the better of the more famous Kerry Saxby-Junna from Australia in 43:45. The team faded to a disappointing ninth as the Soviet Union resumed their place atop the podium.
A decent Chinese trio then took team silver in 1989 headed by Chen Yueling for fifth place. Her day of glory was to come three years later when she returned to Barcelona to win the first ever women’s Olympic race walking contest.
Up until 1993, China’s women were like comets. They burned brightly – and just as quickly, tailed off.
Wang Yan began to alter that image on a baking hot Mexican May afternoon in Monterrey and on a partly cobbled surface, when she lit the afterburners to put eight seconds between herself and Finland’s Sari Essayah.
Wang went on to win Olympic bronze in 1996, World Championships silver in 1999, and in 2001 clocked 1:26:22 to break the world record, a mark that stood nearly four years.
Finally, in 1995, China the visitors became China the World Cup hosts.
Up until now, the men had proven poor travellers. But on the streets of Beijing, and with cottonwood or similar in the air that made it look as if it was snowing, the men finally came in from the cold.
They posted fast times at home, so it was no surprise when Li Ziwen looked around and wondered why he was the only one in the lead pack to look fresh with less than a quarter of the 20km race to go. He almost smiled as he shifted through the gears to become China’s first men’s winner in 1:19:44 – a comfortable 14 seconds ahead of second.
Zhao Yongsheng’s sole global success came when he took the 50km title from the ageless Jesus Angel Garcia, and Beijing’s weekend was complete when Gao Hongmiao breezed home ahead of Yelena Nikolayeva and team-mates Liu Hongyu and Gu Yan to take back the team prize.
Gu moved from fourth to individual second in Podebrady in 1997. And when the race moved up to 20km at the last of the outposts for World Cups in 1999, the slight and nervous figure of Liu Hongyu proved as tough as teak when she inched ahead of Natalya Fedoskina to win by three seconds in Mezidon-Canon, France.
But the race to stand out on that hot May weekend was the men’s 20km.
You had to feel for Yu Guohui. One tiny eyeballs-out stumble as he went neck-and-neck with Mexico’s Bernardo Segura over the final 10 metres sorted gold from silver.
There were silver linings five years later in Naumburg, Germany for 18-year-old Jiang Jing in the women’s 20km and men’s 50km, where Yu Chaohong was an isolated second between two Russians.
But the first junior men’s 10km went to Sun Chao, who found himself just as alone – this time in the lead – after Vladimir Kanaykin was disqualified at seven kilometres.
Han Yucheng’s persistence paid off as he moved up from fourth over 20km in Naumburg to third in La Coruna in 2006, where once again the incomparable Jefferson Perez got the better of the Chinese in a last 50-metre sprint along the seaside front in the Spanish city.
A super-fast junior men’s 10km in Cheboksary in 2008 heralded the arrival of Chen Ding. The man who would become Olympic 20km champion in 2012 finished second behind Aleksey Bartsaykin.
However, it was the unlikely desert setting of Chihuahua in 2010 where China had one of its best World Cups ever.
They arrived with hope, and left the northern Mexico city with the junior women’s team title, both the senior men’s team prizes, individual gold in the men’s 20km courtesy of world silver medallist Wang Hao, silver in the same race, the same colour for juniors He Qin and Cai Zelin, and bronze for its senior women.
Times were slow in torrid conditions, but even in their own country, Chinese race walkers have seldom been better.
It’s hard to imagine that Wang Zhen is still only 26, but his amazing career has produced Olympic gold and bronze, two World Championship silver medals, and a 20km World Cup win in Russia’s backyard in 2012.
In Saransk, China also won 50km individual silver, and women’s 20km bronze, the two men’s team trophies, and place medals for the other three units.
One might have expected a constant Chinese procession to the top of the podium in Taicang when the competition returned to China for the second time in 2014. Yes, there were individual junior wins for Gao Wenkui and Duan Dandan as well as team prizes, plus silver for Liu Hong, who eventually become world and Olympic champion. But the final haul was as damp as the unseasonably wet Sunday weather in May.
They made up for it in Rome two years later, though. No doubt inspired by the Colosseum that loomed over the races, red vests were equal to the battle. Gold and silver went to Wang and Cai Zelin at 20km, while Zhang Jun triumphed in the junior men’s race. The U20 women went one better with Ma Zhenxia and Ma Li hoping officials on the line would allow them joint first, but were split in that order.
Liu crossed first in the women’s 20km in 1:25:59, well ahead of everyone else, but was disqualified later. Qieyang Shenjie eventually moved up to second, and even without Liu, the team won.
Including team medals, there were nine in all for China – and that’s what the rest have to match when Taicang welcomes the world’s best race walkers for the second time on 5-6 May.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF