World Championships, Day 5: Russians and Racewalking – A Golden Combination
by M. Nicole Nazzaro
Just in case you weren’t quite up to speed on the “sports walk” (sportivnyi khodby) – in other words, racewalking – the kind folks at Rossiya 2, the television channel broadcasting the world championships in Russia, put together a helpful animation to give you an idea of how to appreciate the athletes’ talents. I caught it twice this week, before the start of yesterday’s women’s 20km racewalk final, and before today’s men’s 50km final. Among the factoids: Racewalkers walk twenty to thirty kilometers (about 12.5 to 18.6 miles) per day – or four to five times that of the average person. They move at twice the speed of swimmers. And they reach speeds of up to 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per hour.
Now that we’re all really feeling like a bunch of couch potatoes after that graphic, it’s time to explore one of Russia’s signature sports.
Russians and Soviets have excelled at racewalking since the early history of the event in the world championships. Every world championship 50km race from 1976 (when the IAAF provided walkers with a special world championship event after this race was dropped from the Montreal Olympic program) through the 1993 worlds in Stuttgart featured at least one Russian or Soviet athlete in the top three; and Russians have consistently been among the top 10 in every world 50km championship from Athens (1997) onward. Overall, Russia or the Soviet Union has taken home five gold medals in this event, and 13 total medals, including Ryzhov’s silver this morning. Add that to the twelve medals taken home by Russian or Soviet athletes in the men’s 20km racewalk, and the 12 medals in the women’s walk (10km from 1987 to 1997, with the ’97 event contested entirely on the track; and 20km from 1999 onward) and you’re talking about a whole lot of hardware for the host nation.
Overall, of nine medals available in the three racewalk events here, the Russians ran – well, walked – away with four of them, including two golds. And that’s a step down from 2011, where Russia took gold in all three racewalk events contested.
First, on Sunday evening, Aleksandr Ivanov won gold in the men’s 20km racewalk (1:20:58) in a race without the two-time defending world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Valeri Borchin, who famously collapsed last year during the last two kilometers of the Olympic 20km race. Then on Tuesday evening, it was the women’s turn, and Russia struck twice: gold went to Elena Lashmanova, the 2012 Olympic champion and world record holder; and silver to Anisya Kirdyapkina. The margin between gold and silver after an hour and twenty-seven minutes of racing was just three seconds (1:27:08 to 1:27:11).
Finally, this morning, after a wild night of heavy rain and lightning in the Moscow area, Mikhail Ryzhov (“ri-ZHOF”) took silver in the men’s 50km racewalk (3:38:58) behind Ireland’s Robert Heffernan (3:37:56), entering Luzhniki Stadium after a gargantuan effort in the humidity on the loop course right outside the stadium. Fifty kilometers of race made up of a bunch of little two-kilometer loops on the bank of the Moscow River? Don’t say you want to do this sport competitively for the scenery.
Rossiya 2 has been broadcasting the world championships nearly around the clock, rebroadcasting key events during the off hours of competition. This afternoon, they rebroadcast the morning’s men’s 50km final, then interviewed Mikhail Ryzhov and teammate Ivan Noskov (who led the race together at the start) at their outdoor stadium studio overlooking the track. (Noskov finished 7th in a personal best 3:41:36.) The commentary from the race was nonstop, featuring three main commentators and plenty of education for viewers on what was going on in the race. (A favorite moment: when one of the commentators asked in all seriousness whether the special sports drinks the athletes set out for their water stops are “tasty.” According to their expert, they’re all a little different: some athletes prefer a sweet taste, other a slightly sour taste – so it all depends on the preferences of the athlete. You heard it here first.)
Next up tomorrow, when the meet moves back to its normal morning/evening session format, will be our first look at another Russian superstar, world and Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova, as she begins her qualification round at Luzhniki. As she herself says in a Rossiya 2 television advertisement for the world championship: “Ne propustite!” (“Don’t miss it!”)
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