Stumbling upon walk racing on road to success


Just as in the case of Olive Loughnane, almost all race walkers are drawn to the event by accident. Race walking is not the sort of thing you take up for pleasure

YOU WOULD not believe the abuse I sometimes get around here for an alleged bias towards Irish athletes. All completely unfounded, naturally. If truth be told, no other sport is as consistently represented on the world stage, and when it comes to Irish women in sport, athletes are the ones continuously conquering new ground, in many instances, showing the men how things should be done – from Sophie Pierce-Evans to Sonia O’Sullivan.

Such was the evidence yesterday at the annual The Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Sportswomen of the Year awards. Obviously, each of the monthly winners during 2009 were worthy of their prize, and yet four of them were athletes. That’s more than any other sport, a fact, not a bias. In the end, the only real debate was that if the overall award didn’t go to Olive Loughnane for her 20km walk silver medal at the World Championships, then it had to go to another athlete, Derval O’Rourke, for her 100 metres hurdles fourth place – and Irish record – also at the World Championships, following her bronze medal from the European Indoors.

In the short but distinguished history of these awards, Irish athletes have always been in the mix. For fear of actually being biased, the likes of Katie Taylor, Nina Carberry, Jessica Kurten and the Maguire twins, Leona and Lisa, have all made exceptional breakthroughs, particularly in sports that remain mostly male-dominated – and yet what Loughnane achieved in Berlin last August, at 33, and already a mother to a three year-old daughter, was extraordinary. And that’s coming from someone who not so long ago was biased against race walking, if only because of the arbitrary nature of the rules.

Of all the athletics disciplines, race walking is the least glamorous, yet among the most arduous. Truth is almost all race walkers are drawn to the event by accident. Race walking is not the sort of thing you take up for pleasure – and, according to the event’s history, no place for a woman. Throughout the last century, race walking was viewed as a sort of cruel punishment. Competitors typically crossed the line in a state of deranged exhaustion. For that and other reasons – similar to why the marathon remained men-only for so long – women were effectively barred from the event. Now read on.

Back in 1854, at 15 Marino Crescent in Clontarf, a seven-year-old named Abraham Stoker, bed-ridden since birth with an undiagnosed disease, suddenly and inexplicably regained his strength. The family doctor recommended he develop this by walking, slowly and steadily, along the Clontarf seafront – and soon Stoker began covering long distances, without pausing for breath. Initially it was tough medicine, but gradually he began to relish it.

By age 17, Stoker had grown into a 6ft 2in red-haired, red-bearded giant of a man, and won a stream of athletic honours in his first year at Trinity College Dublin. But walking remained his passion, and he was among Ireland’s first champion race walkers. He was never beaten, his sole failure to win coming via disqualification after he’d won the five-mile race at the Civil Service championships in London in 1868. Later, during a marathon stroll of the Aberdeenshire countryside, he stumbled upon Cruden Bay, the atmospheric fishing village where in 1895 he wrote a horror story entitled Dracula, published two years later under the name Bram Stoker. The rest, as they say, is literary history – but the point is few people take up race walking by choice.

Even Robert Korzeniowski, the greatest race walker of all time, offers proof of this. He grew up in Poland afflicted with rheumatism until age 13. After that, his ambition was to be a kung fu star, like his hero Bruce Lee, but the Communist government had no time for martial arts. So Korzeniowski came late to athletics, and was told his best chance for success was in the walk. He went on to win four Olympic gold medals, including both 20km and 50km distances at the Sydney Games in 2000.

Indeed race walking has a long and fabled history. Although it wasn’t included in the first modern Olympics of 1896, the first world record, over 30km, was set in 1870, by Britain’s Tom Griffiths (a nifty two hours and 34 minutes). Initial Olympic distances, from 1906 to 1952, ranged from 1,500 metres to 50km. Since 1956, the standard distances have been 20km and 50km, but it wasn’t until the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that women’s race walking was fully recognised, over 10km, having been first introduced at the 1987 World Championships in Rome.

Ireland’s first Olympic representative was Perri Williams, from Waterford, who – in the true spirit of race walking – had taken up the event as a dare. Williams was a cross-country specialist, coached by her father, Ed, but after unwittingly discovering her talent for race walking, went on to win nine national titles between road and track. At the same Olympics in 1992, Jimmy McDonald finished an excellent sixth – but soon, as would happen in several other athletics events – the Irish women would be leading the way.

By the time of the Sydney Olympics, Ireland had two women qualifiers, in Gillian O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane. O’Sullivan finished an excellent 10th, and three years later, at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, she won silver, becoming the first Irish women to medal in the walk at a major championship. Not for the first time, the women had shown men the way to success. Injury, unfortunately, forced O’Sullivan to retire, but she’s not forgotten, and if the sportswoman of the year award was around in her time she’d have been a certain winner.

What makes Loughnane’s achievement in 2009 that little bit more special is the background to it. Again, she came to race walking by accident, cajoled into it by her coach at Loughrea Athletic Club, simply to gain some extra points during the old national league. For years after, despite her national success, Loughnane was in the shadow of O’Sullivan, finishing 35th in Sydney, and later 12th behind O’Sullivan’s silver in Paris. She failed to finish the Athens Olympics, due to illness, before enduring the dreaded DQ at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. When Loughnane took a break to give birth to her daughter, Eimear, in 2006 it seemed inevitable her best days were behind her.

Now, I’m not going to lie: on the morning of the women’s 20km walk at the Beijing Olympics, with the rain lashing my hotel window, I decided to stay in bed, figuring Loughnane wasn’t going to do much. Then the text messages started coming in: “You better get down here . . . She’s well up.” I just made it to the Bird’s Nest in time to see her finish seventh, soaked to the skin, but with a look a confidence that said “and I’m not done yet”.

On the morning of August 16th, I was first down to the old Brandenburg Gate. It was hot, crowded, and when the walking got tough, Loughnane got going. She won her silver medal with a display of courage and determination rarely witnessed in Irish sport. That’s not being biased for or against anyone.