The IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018 reached an exciting climax as Koki Ikeda led Japan to double gold in the men’s 20km race walk.
On a warm and muggy Sunday morning in Jiangsu province, Ikeda bided his time and waited until the final turn to stride away from the last of his opponents to become Japan's first 20km winner in the history of these championships. With strong performances from his teammates, Japan also secured the team title.
Long-time leader Wang Kaihua held on for the silver medal and led the host nation to a team bronze, while Italy’s Massimo Stano finished strongly to take individual bronze and team silver.
In the humid conditions, the pace was consistent but never too fast. Germany’s 2009 world U18 champion Hagen Pohle forged ahead at the start and was joined by Wang as they passed three kilometres in 12:21 and four kilometres in 16:28.
After two laps, just 10 seconds separated the top 50 men. Pohle and Wang reached five kilometres in 20:30, six seconds ahead of the 25-strong chase pack. The gap continued to grow over the next two laps; with heavy rain starting to fall at seven kilometres, reached in 28:37, they were 10 seconds ahead. At nine kilometres, passed in 36:44, they were 13 seconds ahead.
But after passing the half-way point in 40:48, their lead had reduced to 10 seconds. The chase pack was also beginning to shrink and Australia’s Olympic bronze medallist Dane Bird-Smith was one of the first casualties of the race. The recently crowned Commonwealth champion pulled up at the half-way mark, having injured his hamstring after seven kilometres.
World leader Eiki Takahashi started to force the pace in the chase pack and encouraged his Japanese teammates to go with him.
The sun made a brief appearance about 45 minutes into the race with Wang now the sole leader as Pohle was drifting back towards the chase pack. China's Cai Zelin, meanwhile, was forced to withdraw due to a probable breaking of the meniscus.
Wang passed 12 kilometres in 48:54 and Pohle became part of the following group soon after, joining Takahashi, Ikeda, Isamu Fujisawa, Toshikazu Yamanishi, Stano, world champion Eider Arevalo, China’s Jin Xiangqian and Britain’s Tom Bosworth.
A minute after passing 13 kilometres in 52:59, Wang was joined at the front by Takahashi and Ikeda. Just a few strides behind them, Bosworth received his third red card and had to head to the pit lane for a two-minute penalty.
Arevalo started to struggle after 14 kilometres, while Wang, Takahashi, Ikeda and Yamanishi made a bit of a break. A few minutes later, the lead quartet was joined by the chase trio to form a lead pack of seven.
Stano enjoyed a brief stint at the front of the pack as they approached 16 kilometres, but Yamanishi then made a move. Ikeda and Wang went with him, but Stano and Takahashi held back while Jin and Fujisawa started to fade.
The metronomic pace continued as Ikeda and Wang hit 17 kilometres in 1:09:16. Yamanishi then started to drop back and Takahashi was shown a third red card, meaning he had to head to the pit lane at a crucial part of the race, effectively ending his chances of an individual medal.
As the bell sounded for the final two-kilometre lap, Wang and Ikeda were side by side. They upped their pace and covered the next kilometre in 4:00 but were still inseparable. It was only when they headed back down Shanghai Road and turned the final bend that Ikeda moved into top gear and suddenly opened a decisive gap on Wang.
Ikeda, who turned 20 just three days ago, couldn’t hold back his smile as he approached the finish and crossed the line in 1:21:13. Wang followed nine seconds later, while Stano produced a storming finish to overtake Yamanishi in the closing stages, taking bronze in 1:21:33.
"I raced quite conservatively for the first 15km, but I accelerated over the last five kilometres and fought hard," said Ikeda.
"My next goal is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There are many good race walkers in Japan, so I would like to learn from them."
With three finishers in the top seven, Japan won team gold. Italy secured team silver, while China overtook Ecuador in the team standings in the closing stages to earn team bronze.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF