History of Race Walking

Although it may look easy, race walking, an Olympic sport, is in reality very difficult. Race walking is a long-distance footrace in which the athletes must walk and not run. In race walking, there is a rule known as the “straight leg rule,” which means the moment the leading foot touches the ground and until the leg passes under the center of the body, the knee is not allowed to bend. Athletes are penalized for bending their knees, as their knee passes under the body or when one of their feet are not touching the ground, which is why form and technique are very important in this sport.

Judges watch every walker to determine whether they are to be disqualified or not. There are usually about 9 or 10 judges that participate in each event. These judges judge the race with the naked eye, as video judging is not accepted. They hold up paddles that would have symbols that mean “loss of contact (on the road)” and “bent knee.” These judges also send out a warning card that the main judge or chief judge would receive, and when a race walker receives three warning cards from three different judges, that racer is disqualified.

Race walking can be dated back to about 400 years ago in England. It did not take long to become a very popular sport throughout the world. By the 19th century, race walking was just as popular as horse racing. Race walking and horse racing had one thing in common, which was betting. What made these races interesting to place bets on is that racers would suffer through races that would last for several days. The typical races at this time would consist of racers trying to walk 100 miles in less than 24 hours. Other racers would last more than 40 days, where the racers would try to walk one mile each hour. It did not take long afterward for race walking to become a part of the Olympics. In 1908, race walking was an Olympic game for men, and it took 84 more years for women to be able to participate in Olympic race walking. Some most memorable race walkers in history are Ken Matthews, who won the 20-kilometer event in the 1960 Olympics, and Don Thompson who won the 1964 Olympic race walking for the 50-kilometer race.

Due to the tough rules that are put onto the racers, it brings such controversy and disappointment to some competitors. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Mexico’s Bernardo Segura would be racer to experience such disappointment. The moment he finished the race from the Olympic Stadium to the finish line, he thought he took first place when in fact he was unaware that he was issued his third and final red flag for his “loss of contact” to the ground, disqualifying him from the race. This was good news to the second-place racer, Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski, who then took first place. Second place was Noe Hernandez from Mexico and Vladimir Andreyev from Russia.

Race walking, with all its controversies, has still made it to the 2008 Olympics. There are many favorites for the upcoming race, such as Russia’s Denis Nizhegorodov in the 50-kilometer race walk. He took silver in the 2004 Olympics in Athens when he felt that he was in a “steam bath” due to the horrific heat. He was only 24 then and the youngest to start such a long and aching race. Whoever the winner, it will be a tough race but for many and hopefully not a controversial finish.