The 13th European Race Walking Cup in the Lithuanian city of Alytus on Sunday (19) appears to be a great opportunity for Italian athletes to rack up points in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
Victory in three out of four events for Italian race walkers is a distinct possibility, with the intriguing prospect of Eleonora Giorgi breaking the women's 50km world record.
Should the debutante at the distance reproduce early season form in shorter races, then Liu Hong’s 3:59:15 mark is in serious danger.
The Chinese legend only claimed it in March, but Giorgi strolled to a worthy 2:45:21 for 35km in Gioiosa Marea at the end of January.
Her splits in that race suggest a finishing time within 4:00 in the city two hours south east of the capital, Vilnius, is within the 29-year-old’s compass. On top of which, her swift 1:27:46 last month for 20km in Podebrady is the fastest by a European woman so far this year.
It will take something special to stop Antonella Palmisano making it an Italian double after victory in 2017 at 20km.
Her ice breaker at the end of March attracted novel interest for a low-key 10,000m race when she invited race walking fans on social media to guess her time at the Italian Club Championships. The three closest to 42:40.9 won a prize and now own a brand new sports shirt.
At the same championships, Massimo Stano clocked 38:28.05 to shatter his previous track best by nearly two minutes.
He was one heart-breaking second from European 20km bronze in Berlin last year, but the race walker who pipped him at the post lines up in Alytus as well.
Authorised neutral athlete Vasiliy Mizinov recorded 1:18:32 in February minus international judges, but more reliable was the 21-year-old’s 1:20:14 win in Podebrady in April where Giorgi also shone.
The likely suspects queuing up for points and honours include defending Cup champion Christoper Linke. The German had to settle for third in Podebrady, but is again in good shape.
Following knee surgery in January, Spain’s Alvaro Martin is getting close to the form that won him the European title last year.
European silver medallist Diego Garcia and 2015 world champion Miguel Angel Lopez will make Spain hard to beat for team honours.
Support around the one-kilometre course, right in the centre of Alytus, should lift Marius Ziukas, who at 33, has finally come out of the shadows.
The Lithuanian clocked a PB of 1:20:31 in February and then produced a significant negative split one month later to win in 1:22:29 in Dudince. If home support counts for anything, that recent PB is in danger.
Tom Bosworth and Callum Wilkinson will be in the lead group flying the British flag, and if both can avoid any rash moves, could be in the shake-up over the final three kilometres.
Italy’s Federico Tontodonati and France’s Gabriel Bordier and Kevin Campion can also expect a top-10 finish.
Diniz back at his preferred distance
Yohann Diniz toes the line in the longer race in what will be his first 50km outing since winning the 2017 world title at the distance. The world record-holder is head and shoulders better than the rest of the field – even on a relatively slow day.
The 41-year-old Frenchman, who missed most of last year through injury, tends to ignite the afterburners after just a few kilometres and sometimes pays for it later. But if he holds it all together, look no further for the winner.
Ukraine’s Ivan Banzeruk, with PBs of 3:44:49 for 50km and 2:36:09 for 35km, should lead the chase.
A solid Spanish team headed by Benjamín Sánchez will be in Diniz’s wake, and likewise Italy with the dependable Marco De Luca will challenge for team honours.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop Jesus Angel Garcia. The 1993 world champion turns 50 in October, but has already scored a decent 3:57:23 this year, and rarely fails to finish.
Alongside Palmisano in the women’s 20km, European champion Maria Perez plans to repeat her outstanding form of last year. Ukraine’s Inya Kashyna recorded a solid 1:29:30 in Rio Maior in April when her late charge was timed to near perfection for second place.
Neutral athlete Yana Smerdova, still only 21, should also be in the mix.
Apart from Perez, Spain have Raquel González and Laura García-Caro, both of whom have bettered 1:31 this year.
The hosts also have hopes in the women’s 20km.
Brigita Virbalytė-Dimšienė set a national record of 1:27:59 to finish fourth at last year’s European Championships and earlier this year clocked 1:31:25 in Adelaide.
Compatriot Živile Vaiciukeviciute finished right behind Virbalytė-Dimšienė in Berlin with a national U23 record of 1:28.07. Her twin sister Monika augmented a fine European team bronze in Podebrady two years ago.
The women’s 50km is not only a debut for Giorgi but for the European Cup. An entry list of 30 underlines how quickly the event has increased popularity.
Two years ago, a mere seven lined up for the event at the IAAF World Championships in London and only four of those finished.
In Alytus, Giorgi should prevail, but many a debut race walker at the long race has found out just how tough it is in the closing stages.
Best placed to cash in should the Italian falter is current world champion, Ines Henriques, who broke the fledgling world record in 2017 with 4:05:56.
Behind them should be Spain’s Julia Takács with a PB of 4:13:04, and Belarussian pair Nastassia Yatsevich and Nadzeya Darazhuk.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF