Eiki Takahashi at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)
All roads not only lead to Rome for 20km race walkers at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016; there is one thoroughfare about to see an epic battle against the backdrop of the ancient Colosseum on the lip of the course.
The good news for spectators is that the race-walking gladiators are pretty evenly matched.
Individually, there are at least six or more who could break the tape. On a team level, Japan, China and Canada have terrific units in great form and at least one of those countries should make it on to the podium.
Spain and defending champions Ukraine plot to upset the party, however.
Two-time world silver medallist Wang Zhen has the fastest PB of all the entrants, and the Asian Games champion has more than enough pedigree to repeat his 2012 World Cup win in Saransk – especially after a 1:19:12 victory in China’s Olympic trial race.
Olympic champion Chen Ding and 2014 World Cup silver medallist Cai Zelin will also be in Rome, but the top three race walkers on the 2016 world list all come from Japan and two of those will be racing in the Italian capital.
Even without injured world record-holder Yusuke Suzuki, the Japanese trio of Eiki Takahashi, Isamu Fujisawa and Takumi Saito should skate home, assuming the usual caveat of satisfying watching judges.
Takahashi clocked a world-leading 1:18:26 to win the national title in February with Fujisawa placing second in 1:18:45. Saito, meanwhile, clocked a PB of 1:19:44 to finish third in a competitive race in Nomi in March.
Canada, with world bronze medallist Ben Thorne, national record-holder Inaki Gomez and Pan-American champion Evan Dunfee, also look strong as a unit and could even challenge for individual honours.
That same trio finished fourth in the team standings in 2014, just one point away from a place on the podium, and will be using the memories of that experience as motivation in Rome.
World champion Miguel Angel Lopez does what a winner does: peaks for top races and holds his nerve to the tape.
Alongside him on the Spanish team should be European under-23 silver medallist Alvaro Martin, winner of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Rio Maior last month.
Ukraine were surprise team winners in Taicang two years ago, and in Ruslan Dmytrenko they also had the individual winner. His 1:21:31 at Ivano-Frankivsk in March was nothing special in world terms, but it was still a win, and the Ukrainians have got the taste for medals.
Individually, it’s not always the fastest on paper who wins this race. Dmytrenko was one of a number of promising race walkers in 2014 when the hosts were the favourites, but he still got home first with a last-lap sprint.
Andres Choco was third in Rio Maior, but he also broke the South American 50km record in Ciudad Juarez in early March to suggest he has not only strength in spades, but is clearly Ecuador’s natural successor to the great Jefferson Perez.
Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith has made steady but sure progress among the elite. The 23-year-old’s 1:20:04 victory to start the 2016 Race Walking Challenge in Adelaide in February was a personal best by one second and, more importantly, was achieved in searing heat.
Weather forecasts suggest the Italian capital could boast north of 25C by the time of Saturday’s afternoon start that should play in favour of those used to warm conditions.
Other outsiders for individual glory will include an African race walker. So far, the continent with distance pedigree in every foothill has failed to get to grips with race walking – strange, considering the endurance nature of the sport.
But South Africa’s Lebogang Shange’s 1:20:06 national record to finish behind Bird-Smith in Adelaide underlined another gradual rise through the ranks.
Shange’s time was a 1:37 improvement on the PB he set at least year’s World Championships and more than four minutes better than his best time in 2014. A podium place for Shange would not be the biggest surprise of the weekend.
Of the rest, current form might prove a guide. Perseus Karlstrom is a surprising fourth on this year’s world list. The Swede’s 1:19:11 win in Podebrady was his second big PB of the year, following his 1:21:03 clocking in Adelaide in February.
Although he has been on the race walking scene for quite a while, Christopher Linke is another dark horse. The German finished second behind Karlstrom in the Czech Republic and chopped more than a minute from his best, clocking 1:19:19.
Britain’s Tom Bosworth broke his country’s 28-year-old national record when he stopped the clock at 1:20:41 to win at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Dudince in March.
The 26-year-old wasn’t even born when Ian McCombie set the previous mark at the 1988 Olympics. The previous year at the World Championships, McCombie secured an honourable ninth in Rome. Perhaps Bosworth could produce a performance to make the Eternal City memorable for British supporters.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF