An introduction to the sport of racewalking. This is the sixth in a series that explores some of the less well-known sports that are going on in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Editor’s note: With the Olympics in full swing, we asked Seattle Times reporting intern Kristen Gowdy to get the full experience on some of the sports being played in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Previous installments in our include equestrian eventing, which you can read about here, rugby sevens, which you can check out here., canoe and kayak slalom, which is right here., fencing, which you can read here, and BMX racing, which is here. Next up in our series: racewalking…
Rules: “Who wants to work this hard to look this funny?”
It’s a mantra that Steve DiBernado, head of Club NorthWest Racewalking, finds himself repeating almost too often. A longtime racewalker — he won the 1976 racewalking 20-kilometer world championship — DiBernardo knows that when the Olympics roll around every four years, he’ll hear teasing jabs about his sport.
True, the abundance of hip-swaying does give racewalking a funny outward appearance, but athletically, it’s no joke. The Olympic program features a 20-kilometer race for men and women and a 50-kilometer competition for men. Athletes will be walking for hours at a time at a quick clip — the fastest will average a 6:30-minute mile.
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Judges line the courses, which in Rio, consists of a coastal two-kilometer loop. DiBernardo said there will generally be up to 15 judges along the course.
In regards to form, walkers must maintain contact with the ground with at least one foot at all times. Judges determine violations, and can issue caution penalties to walkers who are committing lifting infractions. More serious lifting violations can result in red cards; three red cards for a single athlete from three different judges results in disqualification.
“Racewalking is just like normal walking except there’s a lot more involved in the entire body,” DiBernardo said of the form. “You’re using 90 percent of the musculature in your body. You bend your arms at the elbow, then use your entire torso, you can go pretty fast.”
Team USA and racewalking in the Olympics: There has been a men’s racewalking event in every Olympics since 1904 except for the 1924 Games. In its earliest form, it was a half-mile walk as part of what has become the decathlon, but evolved into its own sport in 1908. The women’s 20-kilometer race was added in 1992.
The United States hasn’t had much success in the sport, with just two medals total in the modern distances. Larry Young earned the bronze in the 50-kilometer race in 1968 and 1972, but United States athletes have failed to medal since.
Instead, the medals have been spread among a multitude of countries. Italy, Russia, Mexico and Germany have all experienced success in racewalking.
In Rio thus far, China has dominated, earning both gold and silver in the men’s 20-kilometer walk. The women’s 20-kilometer and the men’s 50-kilometer take place on Aug. 19.
Training/feasibility to beginning racewalking: Of the sports we’ve featured thus far, racewalking is by far the cheapest and easiest to get into. A pair of shoes is the only required equipment, and once the form is developed, it can be done without a club.
There is, not surprisingly, quite a bit of crossover between racewalking and running. DiBernardo was a former runner who qualified for the 1972 Olympic Trials in a marathon, but took up racewalking after a foot injury. He said his story is representative of many racewalkers.
“Running is a little harder on your body,” he said. “You’re hitting the ground with three times the force of your body weight, where with walking you’re only hitting with one-and-a-half times.”
DiBernardo added that, aside from walking, training for racewalking includes flexibility work, weightlifting and a “little bit” of running. Endurance is perhaps the most important component after form.
“There was a really great quote from the 1970s: ‘Racewalking is a combination of so many things. It’s such a beautiful sport, that it takes the grace and control of a dancer, the strength and agility of a gymnast and the perseverance of a marathon runner,’” DiBernardo said. “Again, looking very funny, working very hard.”
My experience: I only did short, 100-meter bursts of racewalking with DiBernardo, so I didn’t fully experience the endurance aspect of the sport, but I can see how it would get tough after awhile.
The form was the toughest part to get down — by the end of my time on the track, DiBernardo joked that I was “almost good enough to not get disqualified.” But he also said I was a natural, so hey, I’ll take it.
I can definitely see this is as a good outlet for runners who have had their careers sidetracked by injury. There is little opportunity to hurt yourself while racewalking, so it also could be a good sport for other retired athletes who are looking for a good workout that isn’t too strenuous on the body.