For more than a fleeting moment, it looked as though Asia – and specifically China – would win their first IAAF World Championships gold medal in the men’s 20km race walk.
Olympic bronze medallist Wang Zhen went into the championships with a winning streak dating back to May last year. After finishing fourth in 2011, he was keen to impress on home soil.
He wasn’t quite the pre-race favourite, though. Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki had broken the world record earlier this year and was his country’s top hope of a medal in Beijing.
But race walks can be unpredictable at the best of times. Add in the depth and pressure that comes with a major championship, combine it with the hot and humid conditions in the Chinese capital, and the form book may as well go out of the window.
Suzuki, as it happened, dropped out just after half way. Olympic champion Chen Ding was the third of the Chinese athletes to cross the finish line. And Spain’s Miguel Angel Lopez improved on his finishing position from two years ago to strike gold, making his move with two kilometres to go.
A group of about 20 athletes were bunched together during the early stages. Suzuki, who usually likes to go off fast, chose to stay with the group this time. Instead it was Germany’s Hagen Pohle who made the first break, passing 5km in 20:10.
His lead lasted for just a couple of the one-kilometre laps and he was soon reeled back in by the pack. Chen was leading a three-pronged Chinese attack with Lopez and Canada’s Ben Thorne also within the pack, passing through half way in 40:20.
After Suzuki dropped out some 45 minutes into the race, Chen, Wang and Chinese compatriot Cai Zelin were still at the front with Lopez close behind.
Little more than a kilometre later, Wang then made a move and opened up a gap. By 15km, reached in 59:53, he was 11 seconds ahead of the Spaniard. The real racing was now on.
Lopez set out in pursuit of Wang as Ecuador’s Andres Chocho followed with Thorne close behind. A bit further back, Cai almost came to a standstill with what looked to be stomach cramps, but he soon got going again.
The next significant development was the disqualification of Chocho, which instantly put Thorne into a medal position in the closing stages. Wang, meanwhile, was still in the lead but was sitting on two warnings.
At 17km Lopez temporarily drew level with Wang at the water station, but the Chinese race walker sped up again after grabbing a sponge. The same thing happened another kilometre later, reached in 1:11:36.
But with the clock at 1:14:00, Lopez finally struck. Once the European champion went past Wang, there was no looking back.
Lopez maintained his lead to the finish, winning in a PB of 1:19:14 to become Spain’s first 20km race walk world champion since 1993.
Wang held on for second place in 1:19:29, while Thorne – the biggest surprise of the race – took bronze in a Canadian record of 1:19:57.
Ukraine’s Igor Glavan came through for fourth place in 1:20:42, just two seconds ahead of Cai. Chen finished further down in ninth as China was the only country to get three race walkers into the top 10.
But Asia’s wait for a gold medal in the men’s 20km race walk will continue for another two years.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF