Remember watching When Harry Met Sally, and thinking to yourself "What the hell are they doing?" as you watched Billy Crystal in spandex walking fast and funny through Central Park with Bruno Kirby? That was racewalking, son.
Racewalking isn't just for RomComs. It's a real-deal, throw-down, God-honest Olympic sport. The athletes just as elite and devoted as in any other event. The golds just as gold, the silvers just as silver, the bronzes just as, um, copper. Things just move...slightly slower.
You may have some questions.
What is Racewalking?
It's walking really fast.
Isn't that called "running?"
It's different from running because there are two limitations. You must keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. And your front, supporting leg must stay completely straight from the moment it touches the ground until your center of gravity passes over it. Failure to do so is called a "lifting infraction." You do not want a lifting infraction.
Here are some guys doing it right:
Try this, right now, in your office. Go on. You will look like a fool, but you will see that racewalking, despite being the exercise of choice for 40-something women wearing tracksuits and sweatbands, is decidedly not easy. But how did something with such seemingly arbitrary rules become an Olympic sport?
Racewalking traces its roots back to a 19th century pastime called "Pedestrianism," which was described as "competitive long distance walking events." Like most sport crazes of the time, working-class British and American folk loved it because it was ripe for betting. In 1876 the New York Times was ON IT and reported an epic Brooklyn pedestrianism battle between two dudes who walked 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. These guys had "backers" whom the Times couldn't identify who urged them to push on for "the continuation of the match at any sum." It should also be noted that one of these guys fell ill due to "the effects of some drug mixed with a small quantity of brandy which he swallowed." Nevertheless, the men racewalked onward.
Pedestrianism was taken back from the gambling degenerates and made over with official rules by England's Amateur Athletics Association, and racewalking saw its Olympic debut in 1904 as part of the decathlon. Four years later, the sport got its own stage to shine with 1,500 and 3,000 meter walks. In 1932, racewalking started to take its current Olympic shape when the 50-kilometer walk was contested for the first time. The Men's 20K walk followed in 1956.
Today men compete in both 20K and 50K walks. Hey! Where all the ladies at? Well, apparently walking is a man's sport, because the chicks weren't given their own racewalking event until 1992. 1992! It took the Olympics 88 years to figure out that maybe women can also walk really fast without running. And even now, the 50K is only for dudes.
I know what you're thinking. You're all, "Whatever, it would be so easy to cheat at this." NOPE. Because in racewalking there are judges that follow you around, watch you like a hawk, and hand out RED CARDS that will crush your racewalking dreams by disqualifying you for breaking form. Three red cards and you're out of the race.
Disqualifications are a pretty common part of the sport, because as I would imagine it's wicked difficult to NOT BEND your knees when you're walking. Think those judges made a mistake? TOO BAD. As the USATF racewalking handbook states,
The Judges of Race Walking [Ed note: the sport can't quite decide if its own name is one or two words] shall have the sole authority to determine the fairness or unfairness of walking, and their rulings thereon shall be final and without appeal.
In addition to judges being infallible gods, athletes aren't able to jam out to their favorite tunes while walking either. It's just you and your thoughts in the racewalking world. Your CD-ROM player is specifically prohibited.
Athletes shall not use video or cassette recorders or players, TV's, CD or CD- ROM players, radio transmitters or receivers, mobile phones, computers, or any similar devices during the competition.
There's an out. The judges can't watch a walker's every step. There are only so many of them, and the course is many, many miles long. They know the competitors are cheating, but they acknowledge there's nothing they can do about it:
Some race walkers—novice and experienced—make special attempts to be 'super clean' when in a Judge's vicinity, and then their legality may be questionable in the areas between the Judges. Any decisions made should be based on observations within the Judge's "viewing area" and cannot be based on speculation, guess or hearsay.
In case you're wondering what disqualification looks like: Here you go.
Olympic racewalking history is littered with epic disqualifications, but perhaps none more gut-wrenching than what Jane Saville suffered in 2000. The hometown Sydney girl was leading in front of a roaring crowd. As she entered the tunnel toward the final stretch, a judge called her third and final lifting infraction. Disqualified on the spot. Saville collapsed in tears. When a reporter asked after the race what she wanted, Saville replied, "A gun to shoot myself."
Well, that's intense. Saville went on to win two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and a bronze in Athens in 2004. But those facts won't stop her Sydney story from haunting my dreams.
Now, Let's get down to business. Who's good at this?
Eastern Europeans have largely dominated the sport. Russia holds a vast amount of the world records. Poland's Robert Korzeniowski accomplished a first in Sydney by winning gold in both of the men's events. The old Iron Curtain nations probably do well because of that centralized-training, win-or-it's-the-gulag thing the Soviets had going on for a while. This is a theory, but it's the Olympics so I'm sure it's true.
You know who isn't good at racewalking? America. Only one American has ever won an Olympic racewalking medal: Larry Young scored bronzes in 1968 and 1972. And because America is usually good at everything, it brings up a question that appears on the FAQ page for the Race Walking Association: "Why Not Simply Run?" The RWA has an answer:
"Running is certainly faster, but one of the interests of sport is in achieving good performances within the restriction of the rules."
The Race Walking Association FAQ Page also addresses some other very pressing questions, such as: "Don't You Get Laughed At?" Their answer is gold-medal worthy:
It can't be denied that there are some idiots (usually overweight people in cars) who think that race walking looks funny... If other "athletes" mock, invite them to try it; remember to show proper sympathy when they collapse after fifty yards.
Before you go saying "This shouldn't be an Olympic sport!" Here's a fact that may cause you to think twice about the athletic prowess of these walkers:
Stride length is reduced, so to achieve competitive speeds, racewalkers must cadence rates comparable to those achieved by Olympic 400-metre runners-and they must do so for hours at a time since the Olympic events are the 20 kilometre race walk and 50 kilometre (31 mi) race walk.
That's actually kind of hardcore.
Race Walking in Action!
Check out this cute Russian chick dominate for a world racewalking title! As the BBC commentator states, it really is a "brilliant display of walking!"
This dude wins by nearly a minute! Sets a world record! Thrilling!
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.