The Grace And Disgrace OF Race Walking

By Robert G. Osterhoudt, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Sport Studies, Arizona State University

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TRACK COACH, FALL 2000, #153

(OK, now that you've read Ron Laird's outline of proper race walk technique and judging, here's one observer's view of modern officiating and rules interpretation. Dr. Osterhoudt explains why the sport of race walking is in jeopardy and how the rules need to be attended to make the sport a level playing field for the athletes and one that can be consistently and fairly judged.)

Few modern athletic endeavors of rank have been more widely maligned or less deeply appreciated than race walking. Much of the long-standing dissatisfaction with the sport has issued from the ambiguity of its definition and from the consequent difficulty with which it is impartially judged. The troubled history of race walking is run through with many lamentable incidents in both of these two main respects.

Race walking has a long and a storied, if a tenuous, place in the annals of track and field athletics. It developed out of the English practice of pedestrianism in the late l6th and early l7th centuries. This practice entailed "ambulating" imposingly long distances (most often from a place to another) either more rapidly than others or inside a stipulated time period.
Gymboss Timers

     The conditions under which such competitions were conducted were almost entirely unstandardized, 

however. No definition of the "means of progression" was so much as seriously attempted, let alone widely 

agreed to. The distinction between walking and running was masked in a way that greatly obscured the athletic 

significance of pedestrian achievements and in the end significantly discredited them. As the pedestrian urge 

grew progressively less credible in the late 19th and early 2Oth centuries, it fell into increasing public disfavor 

and was replaced by the modern, regulated era of race walking.
     The ambiguities in the international characterization of race walking and thus the erratic judging of race 

walking events nonetheless continued; so too did the numerous and highly regrettable disputes that brought 

race walking routinely to the edge of expulsion from the international athletic community.
     Until 1928, only indefinite characterizations, such as "fair heel and toe," distinguished the race walking 

stride from the running. At the Congress Meeting of the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 

Amsterdam in that year, an international definition of race walking was adopted. This definition canonized the 

"continuous ground contact" and the "knee lock-out" provisions that have marked race walking from that time 

to ours.
     The controversies associated with earlier irregularities diminished significantly after the 1928 ruling. 

Nevertheless, owing principally to the perceived in authenticity of sprint walks (and the dubious style of many 

accomplished sprint walkers), the place of race walking in major international meetings, in the world record 

register, and in women's track and field has continued on an unsteady course.
     From at least the early 1970s, perhaps slightly earlier, a notably more relaxed interpretation of what 

constitutes fair walking had been developing, an interpretation having principally to do with "lifting" (the 

tendency to break continuous ground contact). By the early 1990s, the distinction between walking and running 

had become profoundly problematic. Late and seemingly arbitrary disqualifications and non-disqualifications, 

often involving the best athletes, became more frequent and more unsettling. Race walking was again, and 

quite rightly, under siege.
     The I.A.A.F. responded in the mid-1990s with a modification of the "knee lock-out" rule, a modification 

requiring "lock-out" at contact with the walking surface as distinct from requiring it later in the stride (i.e., at 

mid-stride, the requisite case in the old rule). I want to argue that this modification has been a very great 

Although I have not witnessed first-hand all of the major international events of the past approximate 

half-century,1 I have looked carefully at videotapes and/or photographs of all of them, particularly the most 

recent several. In the summer of 1998, I had the privilege of attending the European Track and Field 

Championships in Budapest and came away with many memorable impressions, none more vivid, nor more 

disquieting, than of the walks.2 The leading figures in the Budapest walks made uniformly splendid athletic 


     They, like virtually all other participants in these events, however, were also running. If by walking, as 

distinct from running, is meant that form of human locomotion in which, for one, continuous ground contact is maintained, and, for a second, the support leg is "locked out," or fully extended (at the knee), at ground contact, these good folk and great athletes were not walking. They were all "locking out" well enough at contact but they were all "lifting" too and "lifting" very noticeably throughout. They achieved "lock-out" at contact by releasing the support leg-foot in the rear of the stride before the non-support leg-foot in the front of the stride reached the walking surface, then dropping out of non-support onto the forward leg foot. Under the terms of the new rule, there is no other plausible way to walk as fast as most leading performers now do.
     The relation between "locking out" at contact and "lifting" ought not be too casually passed over for there is 

a telling connection between the two. This connection is a function of the new rule (and its implemented 

practice) governing the walks. The new rule dramatically increases, not significantly decreases, the prospect 

of "lifting" for two main and related reasons:

     In order to accommodate the tendency to rise at contact under the new rule, there has been a further 

relaxation of what counts as "lifting." This relaxation is based explicitly in the capacity of unaided, human visual 

perception, as distinct from based in visual-enhancement methods or devices.
     There are at least three important things to say of all of this. For one, the principal problem with the old rule 

about "lifting" was that it was not being enforced or that it was being unevenly enforced. The principal problem 

wasn't that it required redefinition (or reinterpretation), let alone a redefinition that aggravates, not relieves, the 

tendency to "lift."
     For a second, the visual perception of the judges in Budapest-and that of those in Goteburg, Atlanta, 

Athens, and Seville, as well-were not ostensibly up to normal human standards. It could be clearly and distinctly 

seen, even by those of us who are not experienced international race walk judges, that most of the walkers 

were significantly "ungrounded" for most of the distances they were walking. Television cameras routinely 

confirmed the unofficial and embarrassing judgment in this respect.
     And, for a third, although the new rule deals adequately with the matter of "creeping" (the practice of 

maintaining continuous ground con- tact but failing to "lock out" at any time in the support leg-a practice with 

the approximate stride mechanics of running but without a non-support phase), so too did the old one and 

without the attendant "lifting" tendencies of the new rule at that.
     Outside the leading groups in Budapest, the fate of two athletes in the 50km begs further mention. Both 

were disqualified, one justifiably by the standard of the old or of the new rule, and one altogether unjustifiably 

by either standard. Thierry Toutain of France, the former world record holder at 2 hours and 30km (both in 

1991) and the current world record holder at 50km (in 1996), both "lifts" and fails to "lock out" in either the old 

or the new sense. His performance in Budapest may call the validity of his world records into serious question.
      Jesus Garcia of Spain, the World 50km champion in 1993 and the Lugano Cup 50km champion in 1997, 

conversely, was the best true walker in the field; the only athlete in the field who "lifted" at no time through- out 

his unjustly brief race. He was remindful in this respect of the impeccable Harold Whitlock,3 the peerless 

Vladimir Golubnichiy,4 and the incomparable Jose Marin,5 all of whom were unimpeachably fair stylists under 

the old rule. Garcia' s great sin was that he did not apparently "lock out" soon enough by the new standard 

although "lock out" he certainly did - and more impressively than any of the others no less.
     Anyone who could detect Garcia's "soft knees" at contact and couldn't detect the levitations of virtually 

everyone else in the field was operating in a different perceptual dimension than the rest of the species. The 

arbitrary and capricious impression left by the Garcia case in particular raises the most fundamental concerns about the sporting status of race walking.
     Throughout its modern history, race walking has been among the least prized forms of sporting activity. 

Early on, it was rightly accused of not having developed a uniform stride pattern which characteristically 

distinguished it, in mechanical terms, from running. The "continuous ground contact" rule brought a happy end 

to "lifting" and the "knee lock-out" rule put an equally auspicious end to "creeping." Somewhat later, it was 

rightly accused of an increasingly cavalier interpretation of "lifting."
     Its governing body responded with a rule that has significantly deepened the problem of "lifting," has 

exacerbated the impression left by race walking itself as spurious, and has effectively ruined the sport for 

large numbers of masters athletes who are unable to "lock out" at ground contact. In any case, it is not at all 

clear in what sense "locking out" at ground contact (as distinct from "locking out" at mid-stride) creates a more 

characteristically walking stride, creates a more aesthetically pleasing walking stride, or resolves officiating 

problems associated with "lifting"-the alleged reasons for modifying the old rule in the first instance.
      I conclude from this that the new rule governing race walking has brought further misfortune to it and should 

be abolished. The old rule should be reinstated and it should be scrupulously enforced, even by mechanical, 

electronic, or photographic means6 if it is not possible to engage judges who are able and willing to detect the 

most egregious instances of "breaking contact."
     The choices here are not unlimited. Race walking has a highly consequential athletic tradition and is as 

demanding and as compelling as any form of sporting pursuit, possessing all that is inherent in sport at its 

best. Well defined and evenly officiated, it has a fully deserving place among the standard events on the 

modern international track and field program. In its current form, however, the sport is a fraud and may well go 

the way of other frauds if it is not put right.


1. I have, in this time, attended only the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, the 1983 World Championships in 

Helsinki, the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the 1998 European Championships in Budapest.


2. I want nothing that is said here to reflect unfavorably on the Budapest meeting. It was the finest track and field competition I have attended or could hope plausibly ever to attend. Its organization was exemplary; its vital spirit and its keen sense of rich tradition, entirely compelling; its athleticism, colossal; and its aesthetic 

temperament, unconditionally pleasing. Nor do I intend to condemn the awesome athletes who performed so 

courageously and skillfully in the Budapest walks. They did nothing other than adhere to the rules of race 

walking and succeed in their context as best they could. Nor is it my aim to denounce the judges of the 

Budapest events; they have been handed a highly ambiguous and implausible task. The commentary I wish to 

make here concerns the unfortunate state of the walks owing to the errant rules that now govern them and 

owing to the formal execution of those rules.

3. Whitlock of Great Britain established  a world 30 miles record in 1935 and was the 50km Olympic champion in 1936 and the 50km European champion in 1938.

4. Golubnichiy of the Soviet Union, arguably the most remarkable and accomplished athlete in the entire history of the walks, made two world 20km records (in 1955 and 1958), was the 1960 and 1968 Olympic 20km champion and the 1974 European 20km champion, and the only walker to win gold, silver, and bronze medals in both the Olympic Games and the European Championships.


5. Marin of Spain, who was routinely near the top in all major 20km and 50km international events he contested from 1978 to 1992 and who was often defeated by athletes of doubtful style, established world 2 hours and 30km records in 1979, won the European 20km title in 1982, and was also the Lugano Cup 20km champion in 1983 and 1985.

6. Mechanical and electronic devices which detect breaks in continuous ground contact were developed, 

mainly for training purposes, in France in the 1920s and in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Perhaps these, or 

revised versions of these, could be used to assure valid, reliable, and equitable judging of the walks.


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