Zakalnytskyy and Henriques defy conditions to win 50km race walk titles

Ines Henriques
Getty Images

Portugal's Ines Henriques won the inaugural staging of the women's 50km race walk at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships

Matej Toth’s plan to add a European 50km race walk gold to his world and Olympic titles fell short in blazing heat at the Breitschiedplatz but he ended up with the next best thing as he followed home Ukraine’s Maryan Zakalnytskyy who won the first title of the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships in 3:46:32.

The 35-year-old Slovakian added a second silver medal to the one he had won at these championships four years earlier behind Yohann Diniz as he finished in 3:47:27 with bronze going to Belarus' Dzimitry Dziubin in a personal best of 3:47:59 - a remarkable feat with the temperatures rising to over 30C.

The first women’s 50km race walk to be held at the European Championships – following its introduction at last year’s IAAF World Championships – went to the athlete who had won that debut event in London, 38-year-old Ines Henriques of Portugal, in 4:09:21.

Alina Tsviliy took silver in a Ukrainian record of 4:12:44, with bronze going to Spain’s Julia Takacs, who clocked 4:15:22.

Toth looked on course for another triumph as he led by almost half-a-minute at 28km before Zakalnytskyy broke from the chasing group to close the gap, overtaking the Slovakian shortly before the 32km mark, which he passed in 2:26.15, four seconds ahead of the fading Slovak.

By 40km Toth had dropped out of the medal positions altogether as the pursuit of the 23-year-old Ukrainian had been taken up by Dziubin and Norway’s Havard Haukenes.

But as exhaustion hit the Norwegian he fell back, eventually staggering home fourth in 3:48:35 and into the arms of one of his team officials, allowing the experienced Toth to move back into a podium position.

The global champion pushed on in search of silver, and at the bell he was on Dziubin’s shoulder, overtaking him shortly afterwards. But the Ukrainian was a final target too far.

For Zakalnytskyy, who finished 27th at the World Championships in London last year, it was a second medal of the year. He had helped Ukraine win silver at the IAAF World Team Championships in Taicang by finishing fourth in the 50km but this is the biggest moment of his career so far.

"This victory is not mine, it belongs first of all to my coaches and all the people who believed in me before this event," said the winner graciously. "My training results were not so good before the championships so I had many doubts if I can make it today and whether we were going the right direction in our preparation towards the championships. But my coach prepared me mentally for this and he made me believe I can go for a medal."

Silver medallist Dziubin said: “Coming to this championships, I believed I can finish sixth or eighth so I did not even think about any medal. It is hard to even find words to describe the feelings now. I feel exhausted but delighted at the same time. 

“The key moment came on the 43km but I just kept walking and followed the instructions of my coach. The big help at this hot crazy weather came from the crowds and fans supporting all the way around the course. It was amazing and it gave us the energy to continue.”

Sixteen years after making her first European Championship appearance – she was 15th in the 20km race walk in Munich – Henriques has her first major continental title.

The only difficulty she appeared to encounter all morning was in handling the overly large Portuguese flag that had been handed to her as she approached the finish line.

At one point as she stood in celebration, the flag flapped right over her head, but she thrust it back again, emerging from her nation’s colours with a fully-throated roar of triumph.

"During the first 20K of the race, I was feeling very relaxed but as the temperatures started increasing, by the time I reached 30K, I started struggling a bit. However, I knew I had a considerable advantage over the athletes behind me so I didn't worry so much about finishing with a faster time," said Henriques.

"Had the temperatures not been so hot today, I could have aimed for a better time, but I´m very pleased I am able to add the European title to the world title from last year."