Having only just returned this season from a two-year maternity break, 32-year-old Liu Hong landed her third world 20km race walk title, looking every bit as dominant as she did when winning her previous major gold medals.
It was also the first time one nation had swept the medals in a women’s race walking event at the World Championships as her Chinese teammates Qieyang Shenjie and Yang Liujing followed her across the finish line.
But it was only in the last few kilometres that the Chinese trio emerged as the likely medallists as they had several other athletes for company up until that point.
Unsurprisingly, the pace for the opening laps of the two-kilometre circuit on Doha’s Corniche was comfortable for most of the leading contenders and a large lead pack of about 20 women passed through five kilometres in 24:01.
Liu, Qieyang and Yang were joined in that lead pack by a fourth Chinese race walker, Yang Jiayu, a wild card entrant as the defending champion, along with the likes of world leader Glenda Morejon of Ecuador, Turkish teenager Meryem Bekmez, Pan-American champion Sandra Arenas of Colombia and South American record-holder Erica De Sena of Brazil.
Shortly before seven kilometres, Australia’s rising talent Katie Hayward was the first race walker to be shown their fourth red paddle and she was duly disqualified.
The lead pack started to thin out after eight kilometres, which was covered in 38:31. A few minutes later, Liu, Qieyang and Morejon moved to the front and stretched out the pack, leaving just nine women in the lead group as they reached the half-way point in 47:51.
De Sena was next to make a move, darting into the lead as they approached 11 kilometres, forcing Germany’s Saskia Feige off the back of the pack. The Chinese quartet soon caught up with De Sena, but it soon became clear that the pace wasn’t going to drop and the race was turning into a war of attrition.
The next few kilometres were each covered within 4:40. With 15km reached in 1:11:02, Arenas was struggling to match the pace of the leaders and the Colombian started to drop away from the pack. Qieyang, meanwhile, continued to lead with her Chinese teammates close by.
The racing ramped up at about 17km when Qieyang and Liu started to pull away slightly from the others. De Sena started to show her first signs of distress, while Yang Liujing and Yang Jiayu didn’t seem capable of matching the speed their compatriots were producing.
Liu made her first bid for glory with a lap to go, having covered the 18th kilometre in 4:24. Moments later, Yang Jiayu was disqualified and had to step off the course, ending her hopes of a second successive medal.
It left three Chinese women out in front with De Sena trying her best to stay close to third-place Yang Liujing. As the final lap progressed, the gaps between the leading trio opened up, thanks in part to Liu’s penultimate kilometre of 4:17. She closed with an even quicker kilometre of 4:09, giving her a final 5km split of 21:51.
Liu crossed the line victorious in 1:32:54 to win a record third world 20km race walk title. Qieyang (1:33:10) and Yang (1:33:17) completed the historic podium sweep for China. Following the country’s 1-2 finish in the 50km event 24 hours prior, it meant China won five of the six medals on offer in women’s race walking events in Doha.
As was the case at the 2017 World Championships in London, De Sena and Arenas finished fourth and fifth respectively.
Japanese duo Kumiko Okada and Nanako Fujii worked together throughout the second half of the race to advance through the field, eventually finishing sixth and seventh. European champion Maria Perez also finished strongly, taking eighth place.
Despite the 31C heat and 75% humidity, 38 of the 46 athletes completed the race. Three were disqualified and three did not finish.
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