History was made in more ways than one in the men’s 50km race walk at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 as Saturday (28) merged into Sunday (29).
Yusuke Suzuki became the first Japanese race walker to win a world title, making a bold move in the early stages to build a lead that largely went unchallenged.
Portugal’s Joao Vieira, making his 11th World Championships appearance at the age of 43, came through to finish second, becoming the oldest medallist ever at the World Championships.
And a fast-finishing Evan Dunfee took bronze – nearly catching Vieira before the line – to become Canada’s first ever medallist in the 50km race walk.
But, as ever with the 50km race walk, it wasn’t an uneventful race.
Suzuki made an early move, striding into the lead after just a couple of minutes while most of the rest of the field were content to take it easy during the early stages while they got a feel for the conditions.
Suzuki’s lead started to grow with each kilometre, but no one was willing to go with him as he led by 10 seconds through the first 10km. Defending champion Yohann Diniz, however, wasn’t going to relinquish his title without a fight and the Frenchman caught up with Suzuki at 10km, reached in 49:11.
The share of the lead didn’t last long, though, and Diniz dropped back down the field over the next few kilometres, unable to match the calm and focused Suzuki. Olympic champion Matej Toth and Mexico’s Isaac Palma were among those who tried to pursue Suzuki during the first half but no one was able to get close.
By the time Suzuki reached 20km in 1:37:35 – some 21 minutes shy of his world record for that distance – his lead had grown to two minutes, while Norway’s Havard Haukenes and China’s Wang Qin formed the chase duo.
Suzuki passed through the half way point in 2:01:07. It may have suggested a finishing time outside four hours, but Suzuki still looked composed, showing no signs of fatigue – unlike several others behind him, who were either starting to drop out or losing form and picking up red cards.
Ecuador’s Claudio Villanueva made a brief bid to challenge Suzuki and breezed through the field into second place, but he soon paid for his extravagant move and dropped back down the pecking order before eventually withdrawing.
In the second half, China’s Luo Yadong and Niu Wenbin worked together to move into second and third place while Suzuki continued to lead, looking every bit the potential champion as his lead peaked at 3:34 at the 35km point.
By this point, Vieira had started to make his move and found himself in fourth place after Toth withdrew and Haukenes had to spend five minutes in the pit lane. The Norwegian was later disqualified after picking up a fourth red card.
Having tracked Ireland’s Brendan Boyce for much of the way, Dunfee moved into sixth place behind European champion Maryan Zakalnytskyy but was still the best part of two minutes shy of a medal position.
Luo was the first of the Chinese duo to struggle, allowing Vieira to move into third place. Niu, however, was sitting on two red cards and so had to be careful for the remainder of the race.
Suzuke showed his first signs of stress just before 44km when he stopped at the fuelling tables, slowing to a regular walk. But he soon got back into his stride and his leading margin was big enough that Niu barely made a dent on it.
Further back, Luo continued to struggle and was passed by Dunfee, who by now was beginning to pick up pace and was in fourth place, about a minute behind Vieira.
Suzuki stopped again one lap later and then again for a third time after another circuit of the two-kilometre loop along Doha’s Corniche. But with Niu now in trouble, Suzuki remained a comfortable leader.
The most significant moves of the race came on the final lap as Vieira overtook Niu to move into second place, then Dunfee went past the Chinese race walker. Out in front, though, Suzuki was away and clear and crossed the finish line in 4:04:20.
The 31-year-old had moved up to the 50km just earlier this year, having had mixed fortunes at 20km over the past decade. He was a distant 39th at the 2009 World Championships, just missed out on a medal in 2011, placed 12th in 2013 having set a national record earlier in the year, and then failed to finish in 2015, just months after breaking the world record.
After a two-year injury spell from 2016-2017, he returned to action last year and reached top form in 2019, culminating in his first senior global title.
“Finally, I got the gold I’ve been dreaming about for so many years,” said Suzuki. “I couldn’t compete for the past three years, but today was my moment of glory.”
Vieira held on to take the silver medal in 4:04:59, finishing just three seconds ahead of bronze medallist Dunfee.
“This is the best medal of my athletics career in the hardest race I have ever done across all of my 11 World Championships appearances,” said Vieira. “Many people didn’t believe I could ever get this far, but I never stopped dreaming.”
Dunfee pointed to Canada’s race walking history and paid tribute to his former training partners, 2015 world 20km bronze medallist Ben Thorne and national 20km record-holder Inaki Gomez. “This medal is as much theirs as it is mine,” said Dunfee, who turned 29 on Saturday (28). “We did so many things together. My coach Gerry Dragomir and I have been together for 19 years, so it’s nice to finally get this medal. This belongs to so many people.”
Niu and Luo finished fourth and fifth in 4:05:36 and 4:06:49 respectively. Ireland’s Brendan Boyce moonwalked over the line to place sixth in 4:07:47.
Spain’s 1993 world champion Jesus Angel Garcia – who, at 49, was making a record 13th appearance at the World Championships – finished eighth in 4:11:28.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF