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The World’s Most Controversial Sport? Racewalking

It might move slower — and more goofy — than most other athletic competitions, but the razor-thin margin for disqualification has led to epic protests and continues to make the sport no walk in the park

During your first brush with racewalking, it’s often difficult to to treat the competitive aspects of the sport seriously. To think that there are high-level competitions dedicated to performing the activity that you’re advised to do when you no longer have the stamina to run anymore — or until you regain the stamina to continue running once more — is mind-boggling to some people, me included. My temptation would be to say that if every person roaming the streets on foot between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. with a steamy Starbucks brew in hand can claim that their step-by-step progression to work is also in the service of training for a race, then the sport isn’t legitimate. 

My opinion changed, though, once I delved a bit further into the history of racewalking. I still think everyone who participates in formal racewalking is a little nuts, but for an entirely different reason.

What are the rules of racewalking?

They’re fairly simple. Essentially, you have to walk without enabling someone to logically deduce that you might actually be jogging or running, and the distinction between walking and running is that at least one foot maintains contact with the ground at all times during a walk, whereas an essential feature of running is the peak-stride period when neither foot is in contact with the ground. The instant neither of your feet is in contact with the ground during what’s intended to be a walk, you’re technically running, and are therefore subject to disqualification. 

The loophole in the rules is that all such instances of running must be detectable to the naked eye, and no slow-motion replays can be relied upon to expose the cheaters. Therefore, racewalkers are arguably encouraged to cheat by surreptitiously running whenever it’s possible and they believe their illegal movement can remain undetectable, similar to how swimmers who specialize in breastroke have been indirectly encouraged to engage in illegal dolphin kicks for years. 

Racewalkers are also privy to warnings from judges before their disqualification, unless the offending action occurs close to the finish line. In those instances, disqualification is instantaneous. Such disqualifications can be highly dramatic events, inasmuch as they can occur at the most inopportune moments for competitors. This was even evident in early racewalking events, back when it was an incredibly popular spectator sport throughout the British Empire known as “pedestrianism.”

Pedestrianism began in the mid-1700s and flourished in the 1800s. Not only were there several well-attended pedestrianism contests that received major media attention, but spectators were encouraged to bet on the events with the same passion and alacrity as horse races. Editions of the Sydney Morning Herald from the 1880s indicate just how thorough the coverage of the events was, and how serious the penalties for malfeasance were. G. Hummerstone was disqualified for “defective running” on July 20, 1887 and was suspended from competing in any further races for six months. 

But honestly, questionable technique was a relatively minor problem in a sport with a frequent betting line connected to it. In one race alone, F. Glover and J.H. Went were both disqualified and received six-month suspensions for “not running to win,” and W. Davis was suspended for life for the same offense.

People were placing wagers on who could walk the fastest?

They certainly were. Meanwhile, racewalking eventually graduated into a proper Olympic-level sport. Even so, the disqualifications continued. In 1914, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin devoted coverage to the protest of P.F. Neves, who had his first-place finish in the Kalakaua Avenue Walking Race voided because he was coached the entire way. “I was coached of course!” Neves explained. “But there is nothing in the rules about being coached!”

However, you’d be right to question at least some of the legitimacy of a racing sport in which a coach can effortlessly run alongside the racewalker and continue to offer clearly audible and intelligible advice throughout an event’s duration.

Racewalking achieved a further degree of prominence as more people began to walk concomitant to the running boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Of course, that also led to a surge in the frequency with which racewalkers were ridiculed for their performance style. A July 1968 edition of the San Francisco Examiner told the story of racewalkers who felt slighted by a Goodyear Tires commercial that equated the squirming of racewalkers to the squirming of tires, which wears those tires out. At the same time, though, some of the walkers viewed the lampooning as a step in the right direction.

“After all, they do show people that are supposed to be racewalking, and that is progress,” stated racewalker Bill Ranney. “Ten years ago, no advertising agency would have allowed these scenes because not enough viewers would know what the squirmers — excuse, what the walkers were doing.”

Around the time of the 1984 Olympics, McDonald’s got in on the action, too, with a national commercial presenting racewalkers as goofy, country club types who just barely exert themselves while their faces display perpetual smiles.

All the while, disqualifications at racewalking events remained frequent. Case in point: In 1980, a formal protest was filed by 15 racewalking clubs against Great Britain’s Race Walking Association following the National 20K Racewalking Championship in which a record 20 competitors were disqualified for walking with incorrect technique, including the reigning Commonwealth Games champion Olly Flynn. 

A New York track official monitors the racewalkers’ heels with hawk-like vigilance.

On a totally different note, some people who began running in the post-boom era graduated to racewalking when obstacles to progress appeared on the running front. Sally McPherson is a good example here: She had failed to qualify for the 1976 Olympic in track, so she took to racewalking and quickly acquired the world’s number-one ranking. And, yes, she was disqualified for a form break in at least one event, specifically the Los Angeles Times Indoor Racewalking Championship.

But certainly there has never been a major racewalking disqualification at the Olympic Games!

If only that wasn’t the case.

Perhaps the most crushing disqualification in racewalking history occurred at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Elisabetta Perrone of Italy and Jane Saville of Australia were both easily leading the women’s 20K racewalking event and well below the Olympic record for the event. Five minutes from either a gold or a silver medal, Perrone was informed that she’d been disqualified. Less than four minutes later — and roughly 200 meters away from a likely gold medal victory in her home country — Saville was informed that she was also disqualified. 

When asked what she needed after the event, Saville famously (and depressingly) replied, “A gun to shoot myself.”

That is absolutely depressing.

Which is exactly why I’ve changed my mind about racewalkers, while still believing them to be unmoored. Serious competitive racewalkers cover thousands of miles on foot each year, and endure constant barbs about the legitimacy of their sport, or the perceived silliness of their racing form. Having the fortitude to endure that level of opprobrium on a frequent basis is respectable in and of itself. But when you add the fact that racewalking is a sport where there is frequent devastation at the finish line after hours of relentless exertion, it underscores that a prerequisite to racewalking is to have a reservoir of psychological endurance that’s several times more resilient than your body.