Lu Xiuzhi (© Getty Images)
China’s 12th National Games competitions started during the weekend in Shenyang, the capital of the Liaoning Province in the north east of the country with Race Walking and nearly all of the Chinese medallists from the London 2012 Olympic Games in action.
The competition started with the men’s 50km Race Walk on Friday morning (10) but, sadly, it didn’t turn out to be the epic of recent previous Games. The race was slow from the start and four men were still together with less than 10km to go. With about 5km to go, the 23-year-old Wu Qianlong, from Inner Mongolia, decided to head for home.
Wu’s form had suggested he was the less likely of the leading quartet to make a break, having a 20km best of 1:23:05 from earlier this year and a 50km best of 3:57:56 from the 2009 National Games, where he finished tenth, but that didn’t stop him grabbing an impressive win in 3:51:35.
Li Jianbo, seventh at the Olympic Games last summer, tried to stay with Wu for a while after his break but in the end had to settle for second in 3:52:12, while London bronze medallist Si Tianfeng was also third here in 3:53:19, having also finished third at the 2009 Games.
Zhao Jianguo, who prodigiously won the 2006 Asian Championships in a 3:41:10 World junior best, was fourth in 3:53:30. Further down the results, the notable name of Wang Hao finished seventh in 4:02:56. Still only 23, Wang won the 20km silver medal at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in 1:19:06 one day before his 20th birthday, and then followed this up later that year with impressive National Games performances, winning the 20km in 1:18:13 and finished second in the 50km in 3:41:55, but he has failed to reach the heights of those performances in the last four years.
In contrast to the opening event, both 20km races were world class affairs and there were no huge surprises with all the top names being the same who did well in London last summer. The only absentee was the men’s 20 km Olympic Champion Chen Ding, who did travel to Shenyang, but did not compete due to a back injury, which also prevented him from finishing earlier this season at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge event in Taicang.
In the men’s race, 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist Wang Zhen had the tactical strength to avoid any surprises by Cai Zelin won in 1:19:54. Cai, who was fourth in London, was close but could not answer Wang’s late surge and was second in 1:20:18. Bian Fongda finished third in 1:22:41. Wang and Cai moved away from the main pack at 8km and Wang then left Cai behind with four kilometres to go.
The women’s race was a thriller and had the very rare occurrence in Race Walking of needing a photo-finish to decide the winner.
Five women were together until late in the race. The strong group consisted of 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist Qieyang Shenjie, London fourth place finisher and reigning 2009 National Games champion Liu Hong, London sixth place finisher Lu Xiuzhi, 2009 Games runner-up Li Yanfei and the 2013 Taicang IAAF Race Walking Challenge winner Sun Huanhuan.
With 100m to go, it looked as though Liu Hong was on her way to taking her second successive title after just edging in front of Lu Xiuzhi; but 19-year-old Lu still had some strength left and started to close her rival down metre-by-metre as the blue finish line approached.
The pair dipped for the line at exactly at the same time and, after the photo-finish decision. Lu was declared the winner with both athletes timed at 1:27:53.
Li Yanfei was third in 1:28:03 with Qieyang Shenjie just missing a medal here with a 1:28:05 season’s best. Sun Huanhuan clocked 1:28:16 for the fifth place in what was China’s best ever domestic women’s race.
The race walks used to be held with the rest of the events at the National Games during the traditional date in the calendar in September and October, but the early date for the these events this time will give the China’s best walkers a better chance to focus on the IAAF World Championships in Moscow this summer.
There was also a major change to the competition structure at these Games as a team competition was introduced for the walks, with 20km team events added for both men and women, and these races showed the real depth of the Chinese race walking.
With each team consisting of seven walkers, the roads were full of athletes on Sunday (12) with 60 finishers in the men’s race and 56 in the women’s.
To provide some understanding of the importance of the National Games to Chinese athletics, many of China's top walkers passed the individual races to ensure a good position in the team race.
Wins in the individual races went to walkers from Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Anhui with Yunnan scoring two second places and Shandong two third places but there was a different picture in the women’s 20 km team race with Jiangsu athletes grabbing the top five places for a clear win, with three to count. Fastest was Nie Jingjing with 1:30:09, He Qin was second with 1:30:22 and Shi Tianshu third in a personal best of 1:30:24.
In the men’s team race, the home crowd buzzed as local star 22-year-old Wang Gang was the surprise winner in 1:20:31, cutting almost two minutes from his previous best, but Shandong grabbed the win in the team competition thanks to Yu Wei finishing second in 1:20:48 and Liu Jianmin third in 1:20:49, with the Liaoning team in second place.
A couple of the leading 50km walkers doubled in this race with Wang Hao coming home ninth in 1:23:02 and Li Jianbo 14th in 1:23:55.
The 12th National Games continue next weekend with the Marathon competition held in Yingkou, Liaoning. The stadium events will be held in Shenyang Olympics Sports Centre Stadium, the ‘Crystal Crown’, on 7-11 September.
Mirko Jalava for the IAAF