6 Sep

In Praise Of Pedestrianism

Tom Bosworth at Rio 2016

Regular runABC contributor Chris Broadbent certainly put the cat among the pigeons with his recent Runtalk article on race walking. Now runABC's Alan Newman offers an alternative view to the argument that race walking should be removed from the Olympic programme.

Race walking has its roots in the amazing feats of endurance of English “pedestrians” of the late 18th and early 19th century. Along with some running and equestrian events, “pedestrianism” attracted huge spectator support and was often funded by wagering.
Initially a sport of the gentry, pitting carriage footmen against each other, “pedestrianism” soon became a regular event at country fairs and with the growth of the popular press some remarkable feats of endurance were recorded. Foster Powell walked 100 miles in 21 hours 35 minutes in 1788 and Captain Robert Barclay Allardice was watched by 10,000 people as he walked a mile every hour for 1,000 hours for an initial wager of a thousand guineas in 1809.
In many ways, pedestrians were the ultra-marathoners of their day but the popularity of the activity waned due to the rise of modern sports, issues over wagering and controversy over the rules – which brings us to race walking and its influence on the modern Olympics today.
The first English race walking championships took place in 1866 under rules designed to ensure an even playing field for all competitors. Along with track and field events and other sports, rules were being codified and the newly-regularised sport of race walking was included in the first Amateur Athletics Association championships in 1880 and subsequently accepted by the newly formed International Olympic Committee in 1893.
At first, an 880-yard walk concluded the Olympic all-rounder competition (precursor to the decathlon) but it became a separate event in the London Games of 1908 and has been a fixture of every summer Olympics since. It seems harsh to single out one of the founding Olympic events for elimination on the grounds that strict rules have to be adhered to by its exponents. 
All athletic events have restrictive rules, including distance running, to ensure fairness and safety. The issue is not the rules but the way they are applied. Insole technology should be exploited to ensure that athlete's fitness and speed, allied to superbly-honed technique, are the factors that ensure success. That is why marginal false starts result in disqualification in sprint events.
As an enthralled spectator in The Mall last month, I was utterly impressed with the amazing stamina, flexibility and powers of concentration of the race walk competitors; the quality of the judging and the drama (witnessed first hand) of the first ever senior disqualification for Britain's Rio Olympics sixth-placer, Tom Bosworth, while courageously pulling away from a world class field in the men's 20km race. Surely any event that can generate such a frisson of excitement 100 years after its introduction deserves its place on the greatest sporting stage?
Click here to view an explanation of race walking rules.
Image courtesy Tom Bosworth on Facebook