Olympics: Italy sweeps 20 km race walks, Poland's Tomala wins 50 km

Antonella Palmisano of Italy crosses the finish line to win the women's 20-km race walk at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 6, 2021, in Sapporo, northern Japan. (Kyodo)
Dawid Tomala of Poland wins the men's 50-kilometer race walk at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 6, 2021, in Sapporo, northern Japan. (Kyodo)

Antonella Palmisano completed an Italian gold sweep of the 20-kilometer race walk at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday while Dawid Tomala captured the title for Poland in a grueling men’s 50 km event held amid heat and humidity in Sapporo.

Japan failed to win a medal in either event, unable to add to its silver and bronze in the men’s 20 km.

Palmisano, who turned 30 on Friday, is the first Italian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics since 1984 in Los Angeles.

Much like her gold medal-winning countryman Massimo Stano in the 20 km the previous day, she appeared to have endless stamina as she put on a spurt at around the 16-km mark that left the other walkers scrambling for second place.

“Today is my day. A perfect way to celebrate my birthday,” Palmisano said. “Massimo’s gold medal gave me a lot of extra power. In the countdown to the Olympics we both believed very much we could do it.”

Ranked 20th in the world and an underdog against a trio of top-ranked of Chinese walkers, Palmisano crossed the line at Sapporo Odori Park in 1 hour, 29 minutes, 12 seconds. Sandra Lorena Arenas of Colombia finished 25 seconds later in 1:29:37 to take silver and Rio de Janeiro champion Liu Hong of China earned bronze with 1:29:57.

Among the Japanese women, Nanako Fujii had the best result with 13th place, followed by Kumiko Okada in 15th and Kaori Kawazoe in 40th.

In the men’s 50-km held earlier in the day, Tomala broke from a pack of about 20 walkers at the 30-km mark and never looked back, finishing in 3 hours, 50 minutes, 8 seconds. Silver went to Jonathan Hilbert of Germany and bronze to Canada’s Evan Dunfee.

“It was an amazing day for me. I can’t believe it. I worked for it my whole life since I was 15 when I thought for the first time during training I would like to be a gold medalist,” said Tomala, who is ranked 37th in the world.

“This was only the second 50-km (race) in my life and I won it. It is crazy, right?”

It was an almost flawless race in punishing conditions for the 31-year-old, who held the Polish flag aloft as he crossed the line.

In sixth, Masatora Kawano was Japan’s highest finisher in the race. The host country was targeting a second straight Olympic medal in the event after Hirooki Arai took bronze in Rio.

Hilbert finished 36 seconds behind Tomala in 3:50:44. Dunfee, who was involved in a mid-race incident with Arai at the Rio Games, made a late push to the finish with a season-best time of 3:50:59, earning Canada’s first-ever Olympic medal in the 50 km race walk.

Other Japanese competitors, Hayato Katsuki and Satoshi Maruo, finished 30th and 32nd, respectively.

Kawano, who holds the Japanese national record in the event, regained his composure after clutching his chest and collapsing in exhaustion at one point, but fell from medal contention in the final moments of the grueling race as the summer heat took its toll.

Twelve out of 59 competitors did not finish, including two who were disqualified.

Maruo, the world No. 3-ranked walker who came into the event with the fastest time in the world this year as per World Athletics, voiced disappointment at failing to win a medal in what could be the last-ever Olympic 50-km race walk event.

“As I was walking I was thinking, this is the last time and Japan needs to win gold. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to achieve that,” he said.

The International Olympic Committee has dropped the 50-km event going forward in a bid to improve gender equality as there is no women’s equivalent.