By ELLIOTT DENMAN
BERLIN – Google for Saransk and this is what you get:
“Saransk is a city and capital of Mordoviya, in western Russia. It lies along the upper Insar River and on the western flank of the Volga River uplands. The city was founded in 1641 as a stronghold on the Saransk defensive line. It is an important route centre, with railways to Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, and Penza.
“Industrial development was greatly stimulated in World War II, and a wide range of factories now produce machinery, electrical equipment, penicillin, and consumer goods. Saransk has a university founded in 1957 and a research institute of Mordvin culture.
“Saransk’s population (by 1996 estimate) is 297,077.”
So it’s not a hick town, not a Russian Podunk.
But Google doesn’t tell you the really important stuff.
For example: What’s the biggest game in town? Where do thay play this game? Which of the locals does it best?
Answers were obvious to any visitor to the 12th World Championships of Track and Field, now heading into its homestretch in the German capitol city.
They are: (a) racewalking. (b) any street in town. (c) Valery Borchin, Olga Kaniskina and Sergey Kirdyapkin.
Nothing like this has ever happened at the World Championships, a meet that got going as a quadrennial event in Helsinki in 1983, stayed that way through Rome in 1987 and Tokyo in 1991, and having such success, went biennial at Stuttgart in 1993, and has stayed that way through Goteborg in 1995, Athens in 1997, Seville in 1999, Edmonton in 2001, Paris in 2003, Helsinki in 2005 and Osaka in 1997.
So, after 11 earlier editions of the Worlds, not only did one nation, Russia, win all three racewalking events at the Worlds (the 20Ks for men and women and the 50K for men) for the first time, but all three winners have the same hometown.
Saranskans should be mighty proud right now of homeboys Borchin (who won the men’s 20K last Saturday, Aug. 15), Kiryapkin (who walked off with the 50K crown Friday morning) and homegirl Kaniskina (winner of the women’s 20K last Sunday.)
Most Russian kids take up soccer as a sport of first choice.
But in Saransk, where Coach Victor Chegin runs the world’s most successful racewalking academy, soccer doesn’t have a chance.
Not only did Saransk set a triply golden precedent but all of racewalking made some history here in Berlin, too.
All three Worlds racewalks were staged completely apart from Olympic Stadium. Past procedure was to start the three walks inside the stadium, go a few laps around the track, then beat it through a stadium exit for many more times around an outside loop course, usually a two-kilometer circuit, before returning to the stadium for a short sprint to the finish line.
But Berlin’s organizers did some outside-the-box thinking.
All three Berlin walks were held far from the stadium, in the heart of the city, covering a 2K loop up and down the famed ashhalt streets of Unter-den-Linden and through the classic Brandenburg gate each time around.
IAAF bigwigs seemed to like the idea.
Said IAAF Racewalking Commission chieftain Mauricio Damilano, himself a past Olympic walk champion: “The whole idea was to bring the event to the people, and we did just that. I think all three races were successes. After all, all the world walks, and these walkers we have here are the best walkers in the world. Anything we can do to popularize racewalking is a good thing.”
After Borchin and Kaniskina won their 20K titles for Russia/Saransk, it was Kirdyapkin’s turn on Unter-den-Linden Friday morning.
The 50K is a 31.1-mile journey, and racewalkers take ultimate pride in its status as the longest, toughest event in international track and field.
In a race that long, patience is a critical attribute.
It doesn’t really matter who’s out front – or who’s not out front – in the early going.
Far more important is what’s left in the tank after two, three – or more – hours.
This 50K was destined to produce an array of lead changes and pack all kinds of drama.
Japan’s Yuki Yamayaki showed great early foot, led through the first 5K, with the huge pack in hot pursuit. It was Aussie Luke Adams and Russian Denis Nizhegorodov in the co-lead at 10K.
By 20K, Kirdyapkin made it a lead trio.
Midway through, at 1:50.08, it was still five men in front, just two seconds apart. France’s Yohan Diniz and Aussie Jared Tallent were now part of the lead party,
and now it began to get really exciting.
By 35K, Tallent and Adams had gapped the top two Russians, and everyone else.
Soon though, the combination of hot pace and steamy weather began taking its toll.
The Aussies were soon hurting, and slowing. So were Nizhegorodov and Diniz. Norway’s Trond Nymark was “gathering” for a late charge. Spain’s Jesus Angel Garcia was showing new life, too. But Kirdyapkin was showing more life than anyone. He wasn’t about to let go.
He poured it on, saving his fastest 5K of all, 21:31, for the final drive through Brandenburg Gate.
In the process, he opened new ground on Nymark to win it going away in three hours, 38 minutes and 35 seconds.
For the man who won the Worlds 50 at Helsinki in 2005 and had now regained the throne, it was a moment of sweet triumph.
Nymark – gaining the first major international meet meda – was a noble second in 3:41:16, national record time.
Garcia, who’d won the Worlds title back in 1993, was the real comeback kid in all this, bringing it home gamely in 3:41.17 for the bronze.
Amid all this, many notables came to grief.
France’s Diniz and Italy’s Alex Schwazer had gone 2-3 at the 2007 Worlds. A year later, Schwazer outwalked the world for the gold in the Beijing Olympics. But Diniz was destined for 12th place and Schwazer to the DNF (did not finish) list this time. DNF, too, were Nizhegorodov and Russian buddy Yuriy Adronov.
After their long stretches up front, Aussies Adams and Tallent were relegated to sixth and seventh.
And just where was Team USA in all this?
Olympian Phillip Dunn was the lone USA racewalker with a qualifying time, dating back to 2008, but he’d lost key conditioning and elected not to come to Berlin.
“My tactics were to start slower a meters beyond 50 kilometers,
then to speed up towards the finish,” said Kirdyapkin, who fell to his knees and then to the ground, about three or four strides past the end.
“It was really hard to keep this pace till the finish line.”
Bottom line: Saransk/Russia 3, Rest Of The Racewalking World 0.
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