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Watch Your Step: Why The Olympic Event Of Race Walk Is No Walk In The Park

By Ken Stone | Feb. 18, 2016, 11:59 a.m. (ET)

Race walking might be considered the most dangerous sport on the Olympic schedule. It certainly has the highest Danger Quotient — aka DQ for disqualification.

Just ask Australia’s Jane Saville.

Competing in front of her countrymen at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, she had a comfortable lead in the 20-kilometer walk. But seconds from entering the stadium for gold-medal glory, the 25-year-old was flashed her third red card. She was DQ’d.

Unlike other track and field events, race walking is judged by officials with the same subjective power as umpires in baseball. Except they don’t call balls and strikes. They look for instances of both feet off the ground (known as “lifting”) and failure to “lock” the knee on every hip-swinging stride.

Such will be their task Sunday in Santee, California — north of San Diego — when 15 men who met the qualifying standard of 5 hours, 15 minutes, compete for three possible spots on the U.S. Olympic Team in the 50-kilometer (31.1-mile) walk. They’ll make 40 circuits of a 1.25-kilometer loop course — about 390 yards short of a mile.

Only those finishers boasting a recent time below 4:06 will compete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, however. And only one American — two-time Olympian John Nunn — has already achieved that standard.

(The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the men’s and women’s 20-kilometer race walk will be held June 30 in Salem, Oregon, one day before the track and field trials begin in nearby Eugene, Oregon.)

The IAAF defines race walking as “a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground, so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs. The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e. not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until the vertical upright position.”

The key is “to the human eye.” In fact, photographers often capture lifting.

Longtime walk judge Andy Hecker of Ventura, California, summarized via email what officials look for: “Constant contact with the ground (front foot should land before the rear foot leaves) and the knee must straighten from the point of contact until the leg is vertical.”

But with a history dating to British “pedestrianism” of the 19th century (one gent walked a mile every hour for 1,000 hours between June 1 and July 12, 1809), the sport has a loyal following from high school up to folks in their late 90s. It’s a great exercise for the hips and hamstrings — and heart — with minimal pounding.

“Race walking combines the endurance of the long distance runner with the attention to technique of a hurdler or shot putter,” USA Track & Field explains on its website.

Distances range from the mile to the Olympic 20K (12.4 miles) for men and women and 50K for men. Even races of 100K (62 miles) are held. USATF keeps records for a dozen events outdoors from 5K to 100K, and five distances indoors.

Judges are specialists, who use paddles to inform athletes of infractions. (A yellow is a warning.) Three judges must flash a red paddle for a walker to be DQ’d. Signboards are updated, and athletes know if they have one or two red cards against them. 

“We never show the third on the board,” Hecker said. 

Many races at world-class levels feature DQs. At the 2000 Sydney Games, Bernardo Segura of Mexico made it to the finish first in the 20K but, while taking a phone call from then-President Ernesto Zedillo, learned he had been disqualified.

As technology has become a part of track, Hecker said people have invented things like the “run alarm” that senses lack of contact with the ground and video where you can break down a walker’s style in slow motion. However, the “human eye” reigns supreme.

“Those technological assists to judging were banned, requiring judges to make all calls by the naked eye,” he said.

The New York Times quoted Ireland’s Pierce O’Callaghan, an Olympic judge, as saying: “Our job is not to catch the bad guys gaining an unfair advantage, but to protect the good guys complying with the rules. Judging with the human eye is the worst form of judging, except for all the others.”

Ken Stone is a San Diego-based freelance writer and founder/editor of masterstrack.com. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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