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Grace And Disgrace OF Race Walking
FROM: 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.)
By: Robert G. Osterhoudt, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Sport
Studies, Arizona State University
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
or inside a stipulated time period.
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
replaced by the modern, regulated era of race
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
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
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
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
Annarita Sidoti of Italy, who had won the 1990 European and the 1997 World 10km titles, was the women' s 10km champion;
Ilya Markov of Russia, who had come second in the 1996 Olympic 20km and would win the 1999 World 20km title, was the men's 20km champion;
Robert Korzeniowski of Poland, who had won the 1996 Olympic and 1997 World 50km titles, was the men's 50km champion;
Valentin Kononen of Finland, who had won the 1995 World 50km title, was the silver medallist in the 50km; and
the Russian veteran, Andrei Plotnikov, was the bronze medallist in the 50km.
They, like virtually all other participants in these events, however, were also running. If by walking, as
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
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:
the retarding effect under the new rule is significantly greater than under the old one because the horizontal distance between the center of mass and the point of ground contact, at contact, is greater under the new rule than it was under the old one; because the angle of the leg to the supporting surface, at contact, is more acute under the new rule than under the old one; and because the position of the leg, at contact, is less inclined to ready horizontal movement toward the center of mass under the new rule than under the old one.
the hips are not settled, but raised, by the
"hard" lever required of the contact leg, at contact, by the new rule as
distinct from the "soft" lever allowed by the old
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
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
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
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
associated with "lifting"-the alleged reasons for modifying the old rule in the
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
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
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
versions of these, could
be used to assure valid, reliable, and equitable judging of the
1. Crowther, Samuel and RuhI, Arthur. Rowing and Track Athletics. New York: Macmillan, 1905.
2. Cummings, George. Walking for Road and Track. London: Athletic. n.date.
3. Hopkins, Julian. Race Walking. Great Bookham: British Amateur Athletic Association, 1976.
4. International Amateur Athletic Federation. Official Handbook 1996/97. Monte Carlo: Inter- national Amateur Athletic Federation, 1996.
5. International Amateur Athletic Federation. Progressive World Record Lists, 1913-1977. London: International Amateur Athletic Federation, 1978.
6. Laird, Ron. Competitive Race Walking. Los Altos: T&f news Press. 1972.
7. Lassen, Palle (ed.). World's All -Time Ranking for Men. Copenhagen: Dansk Gangforbund, 1962.
Lee, Albert. Track Athletics in Detail. New York: Harper, 1896.
9. Lowe, D. G. A. and Porrit, A. E. Athletics. London: Longman's, Green, and Company, 1929.
10. McGuire, Frank. Training for Race Walking. Los Altos: Track and Field News, 1962.
11. McWhirter,Ross and McWhirter, Norris. Get to Your Marks!: A Short History of World, Commonwealth, European, and British Athletics. London: Nicholas Kaye, 1951.
12. Mussabini, Sam A. Track and Field Athletics: A Guide to Correct Training. London: W. Foulsham, 1951.
13. Osterhoudt, Robert G. A Brief History of Race Walking: Seventy Years on Road and Track. Blacksburg: Southern, 1975.
14. Pariente, Robert. LaFabuleuse Histoire de l'Athletisme. Paris: Editions O.D.I.L., 1978.
15. Quercetani, Roberto L. Athletics: A History of Modern Track and Field Athletics (1860-1990), Men and Women. Milano: Vallardi, 1990.
16. Race Walking Association of Great Britain. The Sport of Race Walking. Ruislip: Race Walking Association, 1962.
17. Rudow, Martin. Advanced Race Walking: The Serious Walker's Guide to Competitive Success. Fourth edition. Seattle: Technique Productions, 1994.
18. Track and Field News, 1948-2000.
19. Webster, F.A.M. Great Moments in Athletics. London: Country Life, 1947.
20. Whitlock, Harold H. Race Walking. London: Amateur Athletic Association, 1957.
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