Canadian race walker Evan Dunfee appeared to have won a bronze medal in the men's 50-kilometre race Friday morning after he was bumped by Japanese athlete Hirooki Arai and called for his disqualification. But after a Japanese appeal, Arai has been reinstated to third place, and Dunfee has been bumped down to fourth.
Despite this headline-worthy news, the Internet has turned to the time-honoured tradition of mocking the sport. With its swinging hips, straightened legs and pumping arms, it's an easy target. But many don't realize the level of athleticism it requires.
Sherry Watts, an NCCP Level 4 race-walk coach and membership co-ordinator for the London Pacers, a running club in London, Ont., said they "hear the detractors all the time."
But according to Stafford Whalen, former Athletics Canada's National Race Walk co-ordinator and a coach for 20 years, "they're extremely fit athletes."
"Top level race walkers have to have the endurance of a marathoner, flexibility of a gymnast and the strength of an 800-metre runner," he said.
Watts says training for race walking is very similar to training for a marathon, "except they're out there even longer," she added. At the Olympics, there are 20-kilometre and 50-kilometre race-walking events for men and a 20-kilometre race for women. When training for a race- walking event, one has to do interval and long-distance training, as well as work on strength and flexibility. Many athletes also take part in mental training and work with sports psychologists.
Top race walkers train seven days a week, Whalen says. They will put in approximately 200 kilometres each week and "they have a lot of days where they'll go out and do 40 or 45 kilometres."
There are two main rules in race walking that complicate things. Unlike runners, these athletes cannot bend their knees whenever they wish. Their leading leg must be straight when it hits the ground and must stay straight until it passes underneath the body. To the human eye, it must also appear that one foot is touching the ground at all times. At each race there are judges monitoring athletes to ensure these rules are followed. They issue red cards to those who break a rule, and three red cards leads to disqualification from the race.
"They're doing the same thing over and over and over again for three-and-a-quarter hours," Watts said. "They can't really change the stride they're doing, so it's demanding on the muscles. You can see them cramping up when they finish. It's a very, very difficult event."
Some will say that those who can't run, walk. But according to Whalen, it's quite the opposite.
"Only 10 per cent are able to race walk within a reasonable amount of time and the other 90 per cent can't do that so they continue running," he said. "Just about everybody can run but very few can race walk."
On top of the mockery the sport faces, race walking isn't broadly offered throughout Canada. The only provinces that incorporate the sport into their high school track-and-field programs are Quebec and British Columbia. Because of this, Watts says, "it's an effort for young people to learn about it and see it and take it up."
And as the dark horse of the running world, young people might also shy away from the sport. "Race walkers can get made fun of and that's really tough for a young person to fight through," Watts said.
But Whalen hopes the sport will become more widespread and is currently working to incorporate race walking into Ontario high school programs.