Yohann Diniz won his third European 50km race walk title in Zurich and the Frenchman was unequivocal in his conviction that his gold medal in 2014 was by far the most special of the three.
“This is the best day of my life,” said the ebullient Diniz after the contest. “A third European title, it is like a dream.”
A renowned boom or bust performer at major championships, Diniz went on to land his maiden global title at the 2017 World Championships in London at the age of 39. After so many disappointments on the big stage, this was a just reward for his perseverance but his performance in Zurich carried an even greater significance for the popular Frenchman.
In homage to his Portuguese grandmother who had died earlier in the year, a jubilant Diniz marched through the latter stages of the contest brandishing both a French flag as well as a Portuguese flag while warmly acknowledging the crowd who rose to his exploits.
Having broken away from his Russian rival Mikhail Ryzhov in the latter stages of the race, Diniz was well on his way to becoming the first athlete in championship history to win three European race walking titles and it became clear in the latter stages of the contest that a super fast time beckoned.
The changeable conditions didn’t prove too much of a hindrance to Diniz. The race walkers had to contend with a torrential downpour mid-race which slickened the circuit that ran adjacent to the Limmat river but Diniz - much to the surprise of most onlookers and even himself - still came home almost two minutes inside the previous world record with a still-standing mark of 3:32:33, taking down Russia’s Denis Nizhegorodov time of 3:34:14 set in 2008.
“No,” said Diniz when asked if he expected to mount a challenge on the world record. “It was a very crazy race. When I started I had no intention for the world record, I just followed Mikhail Ryzhov, as the Russian tactics are to put speed on and you have to follow.
“It was a big battle with Mikhail. At first I left him in the lead, but then I got back to him. I attacked again at 36km, and he could not follow me.'
It was only in the last 10 kilometres when he had broken away from his Russian rival that Diniz turned his attention to the clock. Diniz’s world record was the 35th world record to be broken in the history of the European Championships and it remains the last record to be set at the now-biennial championships.
“I was not afraid at any time that I would lose, but I realised at around 40km that I could get the world record, and I wanted to make a good race and do more than just a win. I am very happy that Zurich, which has seen a lot of world records, now has another,” said Diniz.
Diniz was initially planning to retire after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but his third successive Olympic campaign yielded bitter disappointment. Diniz was beset by gastric illness which caused him to collapse mid-race although he still somehow managed to complete the distance albeit in eighth place.
After winning three European titles, Diniz added the world title to his collection with a vintage gun-to-tape performance in London in 2017. An Olympic medal is still missing from Diniz’s collection but he still intends to chase that missing accolade in 2021 at the age of 43.
Not that his age should be considered a handicap. After all, Diniz is still a fresh-faced youngster compared to Portugal’s world silver medallist Joao Vieira and Spain’s former world champion Jesus Angel Garcia who will be 45 and 51 respectively on race day in Sapporo next summer.