A bluffer’s guide to . . . race walking

Yes, that’s race walking we’re talking about, not silly walking

Ireland’s Rob Heffernan will be striding out in the men’s 50km in Rio. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ireland’s Rob Heffernan will be striding out in the men’s 50km in Rio. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

 

Isn’t this just a Monty Python sketch with a modern cast?

It does conjure the image of John Cleese and the Ministry for Silly Walks, but there’s a touch of a Spike Milligan sketch in there as well.

The Pathe newsreel doesn’t do the image of the sport any favours in that it renders the motion of race walking almost cartoonish because of the jerky motion and footage.

Doesn’t the gait of the walkers remind you of people desperately in need of a toilet but afraid to run?

I don’t think you’d manage 50 kilometres in a shade over three and a half hours, in that case.

It requires incredible discipline, concentration, endurance and yes ... speed.

Surely most people would consider this pedestrian as a sport?

That’s an appropriate choice of word given that the precursor to race walking was a pursuit known as pedestrianism that was very popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It was a well supported spectator sport that attracted large wagers.

One of the most famous pedestrians of the day was Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, called “The Celebrated Pedestrian”, of Stonehaven.

His most impressive feat was to walk one mile every hour for 1,000 hours, which he achieved between June 1st and July 12th, 1809.

When was it first introduced into the Olympics?

In terms of the modern Olympics it was introduced in 1904, as a half-mile walk in the ‘all-rounder’, the forerunner to the Decathlon.

In 1908 there were stand-alone events for men at 1,500 and 3,000 metres and with the exception of 1924, it has been in every one since.

Women’s race walking was introduced in 1992. Only men compete in the 50km version.

Any rules?

Two main ones: the first dictates that the athlete’s back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched.

Violation of this rule is known as loss of contact.

The second rule requires that the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes directly over it. These rules are judged by the unaided human eye.

What’s the story with the red ‘cards?’

There is a board on the course showing competitors who have been adjudged to have broken the rules.

If a third violation is received, the chief judge removes the competitor from the course by showing a red paddle.

For monitoring reasons, races are held on a looped course or on a track, so judges get to see competitors several times during a race.

A judge could also caution a competitor that he or she is in danger of losing form by showing a paddle that indicates either losing contact or bent knees.

No judge may submit more than one card for each walker and the chief judge may not submit any cards at all; it is his or her job only to disqualify the offending walker.

Top spoofing factoid: Ecuador’s Jefferson Pérez won his country’s first Olympic gold medal. In honour of this achievement a four metre tall statue of the race walker was erected at the Parque de la Madre, in Cuenca.

Do say: Great cadence

Don’t say: He’d be very quick

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