Keep the 50km walk alive

2 weeks ago
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Five-time Olympian Chris Maddocks hopes the IOC and World Athletics reconsider plans to scrap an event with such a proud and long history

Shorten major championship distances or the removal of race walking altogether? Some people may not care, but many do – and I happen to be one of them.

Setting aside dislikes and prejudices, most informed athletics enthusiasts do at least acknowledge the commitment and determination needed to train for hours on end to succeed at this particularly gruelling endurance discipline. Endurance is a key word here.

There are, it would appear, some at the IOC and World Athletics who consider it lacks the ‘wow factor’ and would prefer to see the current major championship distances of 20km and 50km shortened to what is akin to long distance sprinting, at least in walking terms: 10km and 30km are proposed, though it should be said, beyond 2021, even this combination is far from 100% clear.

The 20km is the current sprint distance for men at Olympic, World and European championships. The 50km distance (8km further than the marathon) is a real man killer event. Not person killer, however, as it is currently only contested by men. Women walkers are a tough breed and many are keen to contest this most brutal of athletics events. But despite an IAAF 2004 charter that positively encouraged gender equality, this simple principle has not been applied to race walking – and specifically the 50km.

Since then there have been many battles in an attempt to right this wrong. Yet it would appear there are those at the top of sports organisation and administration who are reluctant to not only address this obvious anomaly but would like to make more significant changes.

This would seem to include those who sit on the World Athletics Council and in particular the president Seb Coe, whom I have had the privilege to know for many decades. We were British Olympic team-mates in 1984 and our paths would occasionally cross over the subsequent years.

More recently, Seb was a welcome guest at the 2016 IAAF World Cup walks in Rome. By then I was retired after 23 years of international racing and my role as a freelance journalist prepping for the Rio Olympics gave me plenty of opportunity to chat socially with Seb and others. We parted with a handshake and he offered to help with anything in future.

Seb Coe and Chris Maddocks

However, letters and emails to the World Athletics office have gone unanswered in recent months. I am not alone either. Yohann Diniz, the world 50km record-holder from France, is one of an estimated 140 race walkers from around the world who have written to World Athletics without receiving a reply.

In 2018 there were proposals and counter proposals to drop the 50km walk in favour of a 20km mixed gender 4x5km relay. There were also suggestions to introduce cross-country (essentially a winter running event) to the summer Olympics in place of the 50km.

The IAAF Race Walking Committee that evolved out of judging problems at the 2000 Sydney Olympics became victims of recent criticism prior to its disbandment in 2019. RWC members took on board IOC concerns about race walking and its future at major championships. RWC Chair, Italy’s former Olympic and world champion, Maurizio Damilano told me they wanted to retain the status quo but pressure from the IOC meant in that order to preserve race walking at championships, alternative shorter distances needed to be considered. The wider walking fraternity rebelled, feeling that little consultation had taken place and culminating in what it considered was a clandestine decision-making process.

Ecuador’s Jefferson Perez, another all-time great of walking, seconded Damilano’s stance. Arguably, the greatest walker of all, Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski told me during a recent telephone conversation that race walkers do need to recognise the existence of the customers, the watching public and what they want is “shorter, quicker, more fun!”

So, the unofficial message from the IOC was, ‘shorter or nothing. Take it or leave it’.

Given this Hobson’s choice, the RWC voted accordingly. Peter Marlow is a British Olympian who sat on the IAAF Race Walking Committee for a remarkable 43 years but he resigned in protest over this in 2019. The global walks community was up in arms. Within weeks a global campaign, Save the Race Walking created by Stefano La Sorda quickly gathered momentum, resulting in nearly 10,000 signatures being submitted to the IAAF Council calling for the retention of the 20km and 50km championship distances. So far, this impassioned plea seems to have met with total disregard.

During an IAAF Council press conference in Doha in 2019, Coe confirmed the changes. Not one media representative raised a question. Imagine if any other athletics event was changed, brushed aside, or modified to such an extent it was simply different. Questions surely would be asked.

Four-time Olympic gold medallist Korzeniowski maintains that shorter race distances need not be a bad thing. It would lead to four championship races in total, which is one more than we have now at the Olympics at the moment. The Polish legend adds that other sports like sailing and wrestling have had their sports amended by the IOC and survived.

Race walking, Korzeniowski says, needs recreational walking, just as marathoners previously needed joggers. Effectively there should be a wide pyramid base of fun runners or fitness walkers rising-up to the elite at the top. To raise the popularity of racewalking he argues, requires education with rules better explained and how it has evolved over the years. I would not disagree with his final point.

Robert Korzeniowski, Chris Maddocks, Jefferson Perez

Over the past decade I have been involved with international commentating, a role that has included London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics working as an expert analyst for NBC. I also had enormous pleasure commentating live alongside Bryan Burnett in London on The Mall at the World Championships – four epic races men and women 20km and 50km walks all in one frenetic wonderful day in front of 30,000 spectators. Feedback suggests, it was a tremendous success and enjoyed by everyone present.  There was a similar reaction following both the London Olympics where there were huge crowds and the Olympic races in Rio.

Commentating from NBC HQ in Connecticut, the 20km men and women’s walks in Rio had been exciting. The drama of the 50km men’s event was sensational and the detail of that race is well documented elsewhere. The facts surrounding the NBC production team for the walks are probably less well known, though.

As good as the team were (and they were amazing), few prior to the Games pretended to understand very much about the walks. It was just a job they were contracted to do and it was one reason why I had been drafted in. I know my event and hope I can be trusted to communicate with some confidence. At the conclusion of the 50km race those around me in the commentary booth slumped back in their chairs and whooped superlatives, immediately declaring their desire to do it again in four years’ time.

READ MORE: Race walkers unite to save their sport

A significant missing component however was the presence of female walkers in the 50km. It is commonly felt that gender equality would go a long way to preserving the future of the walks. Accepting the uniqueness of the decathlon and heptathlon, it is paradoxical to see the 50km walk as the only athletics event where there is no gender parity and yet that discrepancy would appear to be held against them!

Just as Kathrine Switzer embarrassed the running world by shrugging away physical assaults during the 1967 Boston marathon and ignoring archaic exemptions that prevented women racing 26.2 miles, so the walking world has fought to the present day for long distance gender equality. Only a legal technicality allowed USA’s Erin Taylor-Talcott to compete in the 2016 World Cup 50km for which she had legitimately qualified.

The olive branch was extended the following year, albeit reluctantly, when seven women toed the 50km start line on The Mall. In terms of number representation, it did not look good. That is, until you consider that walkers were officially told only a matter of weeks before the start of the championships that women could compete. What chance did they really have to impress with global numbers? The promise of Olympic inclusion requires proof of participants of sufficient standard from most continents around the world.

In an incredibly short period of time there has been an explosion of 50km female walking talent. The world record has been repeatedly lowered in recent years. The greatest female walker of all-time, Liu Hong of China, has already taken it below the four hours mark. Despite this and the legal ramifications pursued so doggedly by Paul F DeMeester, an American attorney of law, the IOC are still failing to support not only gender equal 50km walking but an endurance event with more than 100 years of major championship history.

Race walking promoted well, and judged appropriately, new shoe technology or not, is part of the athletics family and deserves support to ensure opportunities for future generations.

» Chris Maddocks’ long-standing British record for 50km race walk was beaten this month by Dominic King

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