Chinese race walker Cai Zelin (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview La Coruna, Spain

Mouth-watering line-up in La Coruna

A vast array of talent will gather at the ‘Gran Premio Cantones de Marcha' – the Spanish leg of the 2014 IAAF Race Walking Challenge – on Saturday (31) in La Coruna, a city which has annually hosted this world-class competition since 1987.

Men and women will compete in the 20km race walk in the north-west Spanish coastal city which hosted the 2006 IAAF World Race Walking Cup and the 2011 IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final.

Cai the man to beat

The 73-man event offers such a quality field that no fewer than seven of the top 10 from the recent IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Taicang will be in contention, headed by China’s Cai Zelin, runner-up in Taicang with a season’s best of 1:18:52, barely five seconds outside his career best.

The 23-year-old, who narrowly missed an Olympic medal in London when he finished fourth, will be eager to capture his first win this year after successive second-place finishes in Lugano and Taicang.

Cai, the 2010 world junior silver medallist, leads a powerful Chinese squad which also includes Olympic bronze medallist Wang Zhen, fresh from a sixth-place finish in Taicang, Yu Wei, who last year set a PB of 1:19:07, and Wang Zhendong, who recently set a 50km PB of 3:47:18 when finishing second in Dudince.

The high-quality Japanese contingent features Yusuke Suzuki, Eiki Takahashi and Isamu Fujisawa. Suzuki is in the form of his life having set a national record and world-leading performance of 1:18:17 in Kobe earlier this year, before finishing fourth in Taicang in 1:19:19. 21-year-old Takahashi finished second to Suzuki in Kobe with a big PB of 1:18:41.

However, all the local support will go to world bronze medallist Miguel Angel Lopez. The Spanish ace will be looking for his first success in La Coruna after finishing second two years ago, shortly before claiming fifth spot at the London Olympics in 1:19:49, a time he lowered to 1:19:21 when finishing fifth at the World Race Walking Cup in Taicang earlier this month.

Lopez won’t be the only top Spaniard on show as the 19-year-old Alvaro Martin, who finished fifth at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona, will be aiming for his first sub-1:20 clocking following his PB of 1:20:39 in Taicang.

The other two top-10 finishers from Taicang are Ukraine’s Igor Hlavan and Mexico’s Omar Segura, who set respective PBs of 1:19:59 and 1:20:03 on that occasion. Watch out too for Guatemala’s Olympic silver medallist Erick Barrondo, who will be looking to overcome his bad run of luck this year after a modest 1:24:05 time in Lugano and a disqualification in Taicang.

Olympic 50km silver medallist Jared Tallent will also be among the entrants on Saturday afternoon. The Australian won his third Olympic medal in London following his double success in Beijing 2008 when the 29-year-old bagged silver in the 20km and 50km events.

As for his current form, Tallent is fresh from a third-place finish in the 50km in Taicang with a 3:42:48 clocking while his best effort over the 20km this year is a 1:20:55 time for fourth in Lugano in March. Tallent will be in the company of his fellow Australian Dane Bird-Smith, who set a big PB of 1:20:27 at the recent World Race Walking Cup.

Colombia’s Luis Fernando Lopez, the 2011 world bronze medallist, cannot be discounted for a podium finish, although he only recorded 4:05:14 in the 50km in Taicang. His fellow Colombian Eider Arevalo, the world junior champion, is also in the field, alongside Norway’s 2008 victor Erik Tysse and the Canadian pair of Evan Dunfee and Inaki Gomez.

With only one more major event to be contested by some of the athletes (either the African or the European Championships), the fight to take the lead in this year’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge promises to be fierce as – in the absence of current leader Ruslan Dmytrenko of Ukraine – either Tallent, runner-up with 23 points, or Cai (21 points) should leave La Coruna as leaders.

Liu looking to strengthen her lead

No fewer than 36 women will be in contention on Saturday, led by China’s Liu Hong. The newly-minted World Race Walking Cup runner-up is also the world bronze medallist and should be eyeing to regain the title she won in La Coruna two years ago. The 27-year-old season’s best is 1:26:58, set in Taicang.

Three of the other top-10 finishers from Taicang will be trying to deny Liu the top spot in the guise of Italy’s Eleonara Giorgi, Ukraine’s Lyudmila Olyanovska and Portugal’s Ana Cabecinha.

Giorigi, 24, seems to be in the form of her life as she proved in Taicang where she set an Italian record of 1:27:05 for fifth. Two weeks later she broke the world best for the 5000m race walk with 20:01.80.

Olyanovska is the European under-23 silver medallist and has improved by three minutes this season to 1:27:27. Cabecinha missed her career best of 1:27:46 by just three seconds at the World Race Walking Cup where she came eighth. The 30-year-old will be joined by compatriots Vera Santos – winner in Rio Maior in April – Ines Henriques and the experienced Susana Feitor, who finished 17th in Taicang at the age of 39.

The Spanish armada is also star-studded as it includes Beatriz Pascual, María Jose Poves and Julia Takacs. The former is a consistent finalist at major championships (eighth at the London Olympics and sixth at the 2013 World Championships) and has already tasted victory here in 2010, while Poves is a 1:28:15 specialist and the Hungarian-born Takacs is a former European under-23 silver medallist and recorded a creditable second here last year.

Liu appears a solid leader in this season’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge overall standings with a 22-point tally. Second-placed Anisya Kirdyapkina of Russia isn’t in La Coruna, so she will likely be overtaken by Cabecinha and Giorgi, who currently share third place in the overall standings.

Weather forecasters predict temperatures in the 14-16°C range by the time of the competition, with a low likelihood of rain and some gusts of strong wind.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF