Wang Zhen at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Despite the presence of Olympic champion Chen Ding and world champion Miguel Angel Lopez, the pre-race favourite on current form was China’s Wang Zhen and the winner at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome back in May didn’t disappoint.
He pulled away from a seven-strong leading pack at 17 kilometres and quickly established a lead which proved to be insurmountable before winning in 1:19:14.
His strategy was a mixture of astute championship racing and pure gambler’s luck.
Great Britain’s Tom Bosworth was the leader for much of the first half of the race, edging to the front just before the 4km mark and then laying down the gauntlet for everyone to follow.
Initially, he was tracked by Kenya’s African champion Samuel Gathimba who followed him a few strides behind until just before 8km, when he got on the Briton’s shoulder.
However, Gathimba was to start struggling soon afterwards and drifted backwards rapidly before dropping out just after 18km.
Bosworth passed the halfway point on his own in 40:10 with Japan’s Daisuke Matsunaga coming out of the chasing pack and passing 10km five seconds in arrears, with the 22-strong group another seven seconds further back.
Notable at this point was that Chen Ding was almost certainly not going to retain his title or even get on the podium. The 2012 Olympic gold medallist had looked uncomfortable in the leading pack for several kilometres. After the 10th kilometre, he had got detached and was trailing six seconds off the back of the main pack and down in 26th place.
Lopez also looked far from his usual calm and controlled self and was hanging on grimly at the rear of the challenging group.
Over the next two kilometres, Bosworth sped up and was within eight minutes for the next 2km split around the Pontal course. But Matsunaga was race walking even faster and had closed the gap to two seconds, while China’s Cai Zelin decided to protectively cover the two men in front of him and had pushed hard to remove himself from the pack.
World Race Walking Team Championships silver medallist Cai continued to motor and overtook Matsunaga and then Bosworth but the pack also started to increase their pace, consuming Bosworth and Matsunaga just before the 14km checkpoint and Cai shortly after, making it a 12-man mass together entering the final quarter of the race.
The pack – which also contained local hope and Brazilian record-holder Caio Bonfim, who was getting rousing cheers every step of the way – was reduced to nine over the next lap. Cai, whose cadence can best be described as resembling a boxer doing his road workout, was pushing the pace at the front, along with Pan-American Games silver medallist Inaki Gomez of Canada.
Wang picks his moment
This remained the state of affairs until Wang, a much more fluent and elegant race walker than his teammate, made his decisive bid for glory with three kilometres to go.
He quickly put four seconds between himself and the chasers, still led by his compatriot Cai, with the penultimate lap taking just 7:42, the fastest split of the race at that point.
This was just a prelude to what Wang was able to unleash over the final 2km, a split of 7:26, which Cai had no way of countering.
After Wang had crossed the line in 1:19:14, Cai came home 12 seconds later, the winner having put an additional eight seconds between himself and the man in second place over the final 2km.
Coming home third was an utterly delighted Dane Bird-Smith of Australia who managed to pull away from Bonfim over the final one-kilometre lap to take the bronze medal in a personal best of 1:19:37.
The evidence of what getting a medal meant to Bird-Smith could be seen barely a minute after he crossed the line when the realisation that he would be on the podium led to him starting to sob uncontrollably on the shoulder of Bosworth.
Bonfim missed out on what would have been a memorable medal by five seconds – the highest any Brazilian race walker of either gender had finished before at the Olympics was 14th – but he had the consolation of setting a national record of 1:19:42.
Germany’s Christoper Linke finished fifth in 1:20:00 with the early leader Bosworth finishing a hugely commendable sixth in a national record of 1:20:13.
Further down the field, Miguel Angel Lopez got something of a second wind and finished 11th, finishing in between Canadian duo Evan Dunfee and Gomez. Chen was down in a disappointing 39th place, more than four minutes behind the winner.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF