Sandro's Students Star in Seafront Olympic 20k Settings


Wang_Zhen-Olympics12.jpgZhen Wang, photo by

Cai_Zelin-WalkCup12.jpgZelin Cai, photo by

The Chinese duo of Zhen Wang and Zelin Cai, went 1-2 in the 20 kilometer walk on August 12, 2016. This is Elliott Denman's story on the race walk, and all of the behind the scenes stories on this iconic and historic Olympic event.


PONTAL, BRAZIL - To many, Mauricio Damilano is a global Mr. Racewalking.

After all, he collected three Olympic medals, a gold and two bronzes, plus two World Championships golds, set a bunch of world records in a brilliant career, and now is the main man on the IAAF's highest-level Race Walking Commission.

Maybe, just maybe, though, his twin brother deserves some kind of matching recognition these days.

After all, Alessandro "Sandro" Damilano now serves as head coach of the Chinese national racewalking team, and just look how dominant Team China is in the racewalking game these days.

A 1-2, gold-silver slam by Zhen Wang (1:19:14) and Zelin Cai (1:19:26) got the racewalking phase of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad off to a rousing start this Friday afternoon, and followed a string of similar iChinese successes in recent years.

The Chinese team trains much of the year in Italy, but whether its dietary staple is Fettucini Alfredo or General Tso's Chicken remains unclear at this point.

Wang, 24, disregarded the edict of "Sandro" to win it over teammate Cai, 25.

"I talked with my coach beforehand but I just followed my heart," Wang said, through interpreters. "I picked up my pace with about three kilometers remaining, but my coach told me to wait until later."

Well, that's impatience for you.

Wang had placed third in the 2012 London Olympics, but the 1-2 men of that race were nowhere close to that kind of form this time around; London champion and Wang-Tai teammate Ding Chen inexplicably wound up 39th and 2012 silver medalist Erick Borrando of Guatemala was 50th, in the field of 73 starters gathered from 40 nations.

Dane Bird-Smith continued Team Australia's glorious racewalking tradition with a 1:19:37 bronze while Brazil - never known as a racewalking power, but determined now to make its mark in every event on the Olympic program, grabbed an oh-so-close to medaling fourth place with Caio Bofim's 1:19:42.

Germany, which hadn't been a consistent racewalking power since Bernd Kannenberg's 50K win at Munich in 1972, which followed the days of East Germany's status as a global walk force in the Iron Curtain days, could delight with Christopher Linke's surprise fifth in 1:20 flat.

The real stunner of this event, however, had to be Tom Bosworth's 1:20:13 sixth.

Once upon a time, Britain really was great at this racewalking game. The Brits, let us remind you, invented the whole thing - back about two centuries ago when landed estate owners, eager for a little action to liven up their days, pitted their coachmen against the other guys' coachmen in duels of pedestrianism - you know, a walking race from my estate to yours, my town to yours. And so racewalking began in Britain, with the rest of the world soon to follow.

So that's one way of telling you that 26-year-old Tom Boswell walked his 20K faster than any Brit ever had before and began the restoration of his nation's luster in the sport it both invented and then dominated for years and years and years.

With such Olympic champions as Tommy Green, Harold Whitlock, Don Thompson and Ken Matthews in its archives, along with the deeds of such notables as Paul Nihill, Stan Vickers and Roger Mills, Britain long ruled the walking waves.

But not lately, and that's one reason why Bosworth was such an eye-opener.

He's the guy who really "made this race," taking it out from the gun, taking the lead by the second of the 10 two-kilometer loops along this seaside resort town's beachfront, hanging tough and staying in front to at least 13K. He walked his national record 1:20:13 at perfect pace - 40:10 and 40:03 10Ks.

Only problem was that once the pursuing pack really got it together, Bosworth couldn't really hang with them.

He still deserved huge plaudits for his brave front-walking.

Oh, did we say that he's also earning a lot of plaudits of another kind these days. Bosworth "came out" in October 2015 and is one of the few openly gay athletes competing on the Olympic stage. Among other things, he's been appointed an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a non-profit group championing the causes of LBGT equality and non-discrimination.

On the side, Bosworth has a degree in sports performance from Leeds Metropolitan University and serves as a qualified trampoline coach.

When it all sunk in, Bosworth told journalists: "I can't be disappointed with sixth place at the Olympics but I could have done better as I had a dodgy stomach last night and that affected me a little bit. To break the British Record by such a margin and at the Olympics is a dream come true. It was just an amazing experience. I'm so happy I cannot put it into words.

"I'm looking forward to sleeping now and then spend some time with my friends and family - I've had one week off in two years, but it's all been worth it for this."

No Russians? No Americans? No problem.

The race still went off without a hitch, with thousands of fans lining the 2K loop course, not really caring who wasn't there.

USA, without a qualifier under the 1:24 mark, was absent from the Olympic 20K for the very first time, a sad turnabout from the days of Rudy Haluza (fourth in 1968) and Ron Zinn (fourth in 1964, less than a year before his death as an West Point graduate Army lieutentant on a Vietnam battlefield, then posthumously promoted to captain.)

As to the absence of Russia - long a dominator in racewalking but now banished for rampant doping violations - Australia's Bird-Smith probably said it best. "They bloody well deserved what they got," said the 24-year-old from Brisbane.

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