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Munich Magic | Korzeniowski is at the height of his powers in Munich 2002

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  • Munich Magic | Korzeniowski is at the height of his powers in Munich 2002

By the time Polish race walker Robert Korzenioski arrived at the 2002 European Athletics Championships in Munich for the defence of his 50km race walk title he had pretty much done all there was to do in his sport – but he still hadn’t set a world record. 

But that would change in the space of just over three-and-a-half hours on the perimeter of the Olympic Park in the Bavarian capital. 

As the respected newsletter Athletics International edited by Mel Watman and Peter Matthews wrote: "This latest exploit has ended all argument: Korzeniowski is the greatest walker ever to put heel in front of toe. Already the only man to have won the Olympic 20k/50k double and successfully defended his 50k laurels, plus two world titles, the 34 year-old Pole not only retained the European championship but set a fabulous world best into the bargain."

Having discovered race walking at the age of 15, thanks to his sports teacher, the young man from Lubaczow moved to northern France in the early 1990s in order to access better training conditions. 

But the route to the top was not a straightforward one. 

A chequered debut to his Olympic career

At his first Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992, Korzeniowski dropped out of the 20km race walk before he was disqualified from the 50km race walk a little over a week later while in second place for lifting.

Now there was a challenge to onward progress. But the diminutive – 1.68m (5ft 6in) - talent pushed on. 

Four years later, the Polish walker earned his first Olympic title in the damp humidity of Atlanta in 1996, finishing 16 seconds clear of his opposition in the men’s 50km race walk - an event which he would dominate for the next eight years.

The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney witnessed an unprecedented performance from this Polish walking phenomenon. In the space of seven days, Korzeniowski became the first athlete - and remains the only athlete - to win the 20km and 50km race walking events at the same Olympics. 

Korzeniowski would bow out with a third successive Olympic 50km race walk title in Athens but two years before that final flourish in Athens, Munich offered Korzeniowski the opportunity to make another indelible mark upon the event. 

The world record - or the world best as it was still formally known in 2002 - for the 50km race walk had been set two years before the European Athletics Championships by Russia’s Valeriy Spitsyn, who had recorded 3:37:26 while the championship record of 3:40:55 had stood to East Germany’s Hartwig Gauder since the 1986 European Athletics Championships in Stuttgart. 

At the height of his powers in Munich

Both marks would be expunged from the record books as Korzeniowski marched his way to victory on a two-kilometre looped circuit of the Olympic Park which finished inside the Olympic Stadium in 3:36:39.

"The public welcomed with enchantment the first world best performance of these 18th European championships," reported World Athletics on Korzeniowski’s latest triumph.  

"The spectators in the Munich stadium should have guessed something great would happen today, as one of the world’s all-time great athletes across all disciplines, Poland's Robert Kozeniowski was performing in the men’s 50km walk.   

"For the first time in two days, the sun was out and a strong contingent of Polish fans were seated, furiously waving their flags, and singing ‘the red and white are invincible’ as early as 9 am. 

"They expected their national hero Korzeniowski to win and he didn't disappoint them as he arrived in the stadium 3:36.39 hours later to set a new world best and championship record, as well as lowering his personal best by more than five minutes." 

After the race, Korzeniowski said: "I felt I could break this world record after 20km in the race. I knew the pace was fast and it is then I decided to focus on this world record."

Robert Korzeniowski of Poland

Korzeniowski finished clear of Spitsyn’s Russian compatriot Aleksey Voyevodin (3:40:16) with bronze going in 3:44:33 to Spain’s Jesus Angel Garcia who would go on to compete in eight Olympics, his most recent appearance being at the Tokyo 2020 Games aged 51. 

And Poland’s prospects in the race walking events in Munich look healthy some twenty years after Korzeniowski’s heroics. 

Katarzyna Zdzieblo, a qualified doctor, emulated Korzeniowski by coming away with two medals at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon. 

Zdzieblo won silver on the first day of the championships in the 20km race walk behind Peru’s Kimberly Garcia Leon before picking up her second silver medal in Oregon in the inaugural staging of the 35km race walk, once again behind Garcia Leon.

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