How it works
The longer of the two Olympic race walking distances – and the longest athletics event on the Olympic programme – is the only athletics event at major championships still contested by men only.
Race walking differs from running because one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Failure to do so is known as ‘lifting’.
The rules also state that the advancing leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straight until the body passes over it. Three violations of the rules during a race lead to disqualification.
The race is held on a road course. At major championships, race walks often start and finish in the main stadium but sometimes races finish in places of historic or scenic interest.
Race walking dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first competitors were the footmen who would run and/or walk by the side of their masters’ coaches. The aristocracy of the day began to stake wagers as to which of their footmen would win a race – some of which lasted for six days! – and the sport became an increasingly popular professional activity during the 19th century, when it was known as 'pedestrianism'.
Race walking first appeared at the Olympics in 1904 with a half-mile race that was part of the 10-event ‘All-Around Championship’, an early forerunner of the decathlon. Individual races, initially over shorter distances than are common today, were introduced at the Intercalated Games of 1906 and, apart from the 1928 Amsterdam Games, have been a fixture at Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships ever since.
The 50km race walk became part of the Olympic schedule in 1932, although it was not contested at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
Did you know
The first man to complete the distance within four hours was the Soviet race walker Gennadiy Agapov, who clocked 3:55:36 in Alma Ata on 17 October 1965.
Russia is the pre-eminent nation, but race walkers from Australia and China also regularly make an impact at major championships.
Historically, Germany, Italy and Mexico have great traditions in race walking and have won many medals on the global stage.
Following his disqualification less than five kilometres from the finish at the 1992 Olympics when lying second, the Pole then made history by becoming the only man to win three successive race walking Olympic titles, winning in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
He was also the first race walker to do the 20km and 50km double at the Olympic Games, winning both titles in 2000. He also won at the IAAF World Championships in 1997, 2001 and 2003, and at the European Championships in 1998 and 2002.