Toshikazu Yamanishi in Taicang (© Getty Images)
The trophy engraver at the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships will almost certainly add Toshikazu Yamanishi’s name on Sunday - but whether the Japanese wins the overall race is another matter.
That’s because entrants from two other categories toe the start line in Nomi City and ready to test Yamanishi’s (20km race walk world rank: 3) excellent form.
The man with a personal best 1:17:41 has few rivals in the Asian event, but a stellar homegrown field will chase him all the way to the line in the open race.
This is the 14th edition of the Asian Championships, and the third leg of the 2019 IAAF Race Walking Challenge, as well as the 12th hosted by Nomi, a modern city in the Ishikawa prefecture on Honshu.
Although the race boasts the current men’s world record set by Yusuke Suzuki in 2015, it comes exactly a month after the Japanese Championships in Kobe where times have been simply breathtaking: there’s no other word.
For the last three years, half a dozen or more walkers competing in the city south of Nomi have eased under 1:20:00. In 2018, Eiki Takahashi (20km race walk world rank: 13) moved to eighth on the all-time list, and for the first time in a domestic race, three ducked under 1:18:00. So the Asian race on Sunday is something of a form guide hinting at strength in depth this time of the year.
Since it became a 2km loop in 2017, Nomi is also known for its head wind, which along with close proximity to Kobe’s races tends to affect times.
Yamanishi was a handful of seconds behind first and second for a fine 1:18:10 last month, and his nearest opposition in the Asian category is likely to be China’s Gao Yingchao, whose 1:20:31 from last year is reasonably fast, but would still leave him around 700 metres in the wake of the Japanese on current form.
Georgy Sheiko (20km race walk world rank: 68) from Kazakstan walked a solid 1:21:57 at Nomi 12 months ago for fourth place, but would have to be the beneficiary of disqualifications or luck if he were to prevail here.
So Japan’s talented line-up of usual suspects will jostle Yamanishi for overall supremacy.
Minus Takahashi, but including Koki Ikeda (20km race walk world rank: 1), Daisuke Matsunaga (20km race walk world rank: 20), Isamu Fujisawa (20km race walk world rank: 12), Fumitaka Oikawa (20km race walk world rank: 14), Hirooki Arai (50km race walk world rank: 2), and Suzuki, although nowhere near his world-record breaking best, the pace should still be fierce.
Matsunaga won by the best part of 200 metres from Oikawa in 2018, but this time Ikeda is in the form of his life having clocked 1:18:01 at Kobe last month - nine seconds better than Yamanishi.
Ikeda currently tops the IAAF world rankings for 20km, but Matsunaga is the freshest. He got no further than 5km at Kobe (19:51) before stepping off the road. Assuming he’s in better shape now, back-to-back victories are very much on the cards.
Arai is better known for his medal winning exploits at 50km, but still finished fifth in Kobe in 1:19:00, less than a heartbeat behind Tomohiro Noda.
In the actual Asian Championships, there is an eclectic mix of countries that include South Korea, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Thailand - and even puts Iraq and Iran on the same start line.
Guest walkers include Poland’s Damian Blocki (20km race walk world rank: 61) and Rydian Cowley (20km race walk world rank: 51) from Australia - seventh and 1:23:33 in the first Challenge in Adelaide last month.
The women’s event has been dominated by China since 2013 - and is set to extend to a sixth straight victory on Sunday.
Ma Zhenxia’s personal best of 1:29:28 in September last year was augmented in the Challenge Around Taihu races where she notched two great 12km performances one day apart. The 20-year-old has also just finished putting in the hard yards at her Italian training base where Sandro Damilano has overseen previous Chinese champions.
Somewhat distant should be homegrown talent Kaori Kawazoe (20km race walk world rank: 23), fresh off the back of a new personal best 1:31:10 set in Kobe last month.
But Ma’s biggest challenge in the open race undoubtedly comes from Katie Hayward.
The Australian’s 1:29:25 at the first Race Walking Challenge race in February was reward in itself, but she also claimed second and the prized scalp of Commonwealth champion Jemima Montag (20km race walk world rank: 13).
Hayward isn’t 19 until July, but the Adelaide race instantly elevated her to fourth-fastest Australian woman of all time - and even more precociously - it was her debut at the distance.
However, Aussie team-mate Montag can quickly claim revenge. She is ready to see what Nomi has to offer as is Commonwealth silver medallist Alana Barber from New Zealand.
It should be as close as the men’s race.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF