Three Olympic cheers for Wang Zhen, Liu Hong, and Matej Toth, gold medal winners in Rio for, respectively, the 20 km men’s, 20 km women’s, and 50 km men’s race walking events.
And if you’ve not heard much about them from your Olympic news source I can’t say I’m very surprised. Here in the States it’s been extraordinarily difficult to find coverage of any events that the US isn’t likely to do well in, and there was just one American race walker, John Nunn, who seems to have an interesting enough backstory – he runs a “gourmet cookie” business with his daughter - but he came 43rd in the final so he isn’t being celebrated as much of a hero.
In fact the one person who has been getting some coverage is poor (but heroic) Yohann Diniz of France who had some terrible bowel malfunction during the 50 km race. Early reports said he “soiled himself,” which would have been bad enough. However, later reports said it wasn’t poop running down his legs, but blood. The current story is that it was both. Still, he sponged himself down and carried on, then he collapsed but he got up and carried on again, finishing the race in 8th place. Hell that’s what I call walking!!
In fact it seems to have been a punishing race around - 48 competitors finished, 19 dropped out along the way, and were 13 disqualified.
Of course one of the main reasons walking doesn’t get much coverage is because people think it looks kind of absurd, which is unfair, but not entirely unjustified. The nature of the sport guarantees a certain inelegance. The heel and toe business, the feet not allowed to get airborne, is part of it, and then there’s the odd rotation of the hips. Most of us rotate our hips about four degrees when we walk, race walkers rotate theirs about 20 degrees, so that the extra rotation gives them longer strides.
Back in the day, when I was growing up in Sheffield there was an annual twelve mile Star Walk. The Star was, and is, the local newspaper. It was one of those events that we used to go out and watch, even if the rest of the year we never gave a thought to race walking. Some competitors used to take it very seriously:
Somewhat less so over the years: