Jefferson Perez winning the 1996 Olympic Games 20km race walk (Getty Images) © Copyright

Race Walking - an affair of restraint

The 19th edition of the IAAF World Cup of Race Walking, which will take place on a city-centre course in Mézidon (FRA) on 1-2 May, is a competition redolent of history. There is nothing strange in this, given that it is an event that exalts the tireless, rhythmic pace of walkers.

Walkers are a special breed in the world of athletics: even more so than marathon runners, they are the adepts of silent fatigue and efforts that drain the body of every hidden ounce of energy. They are people with endless reserves of patience who, through their walking, remind us all of an ancient truth: man was made not for speed, but for walking. Walking is the fundamental exercise of all living beings, be they humans or animals, until some more pressing need – flight or the pursuit of prey – pushes them increase their pace.

The walker epitomises calm in the face of the frenzies of modern life. When, in races which start on a track, we see them quitting the stadium to embark upon a road, with no end in sight, we can see how the whole body – following the impulses of the mind – adopts a posture of economy. Economy of movement and even of respiration, to avoid too much oxygen being supplied to the system and burning too rapidly those precious reserves of sugar.

Walking is an art, an art that demands hours of daily practice and years of training. The development of style is as complex and difficult as the development of the driving force: the physiological qualities that make of the walker an example of extraordinary aerobic resistance.

Race walking is, above all, a question of endurance. Enduring the heat and the cold; the continual twisting of the intestines and stomach which induces pains like a malevolent hand screwing them into a ball. Resisting the insidious temptation to break into a trot and break the restrictive rigidity of the walking style, which often hits walkers.

The strict rules, which must be followed if disqualification is to be avoided, define the thin line of demarcation separating walking and running. It is easy to cross this line when the pace is fast, particularly over the shorter distances.

A major innovation will be introduced in Mézidon: women will walk for 20km, rather than 10km, as was previously the case. This is a radical change, which is intended to valorise the qualities of endurance, which are the real raison d’être of race walking.

When the discipline was first introduced at the Olympic Games, in Antwerp in 1920 (in fact, two walking races, 1500m and 3000m took place in Athens in 1906: but these are classified as "Intercalated Games", not official Olympics), victory went to Italy’s Ugo Frigerio.

The discipline’s historians have no doubt that Frigerio was the greatest of all race walkers, both for the purity of his style and his ability to race over all distances. He won three gold medals (At Antwerp, in the 3000m and 10km and in Paris, in 1924, in the 10km) and then, in 1932 (when race walking was re-introduced to the Olympic programme, following its exclusion in 1928), he won a bronze medal in the 50km.

50km is considered the classic race walk. There is a tendency among new talent in the sport to turn towards this distance, like the 20km Olympic champion, Jefferson Perez of Ecuador, who will make his world debut at the distance in Mézidon. Meanwhile, the reigning Olympic and world champions over 50km, Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski – who lives and trains in Tourcoing, not so very far from Mézidon – has decided to compete in the 20km race.

This should all make for some interesting competition in this 19th World Cup of Race Walking. In fact, the history of the competition itself is fascinating. Its origins date back to 1961, when a journalist and race walker from Ticino (SWI) – Armando Libotte – organised and founded the "Lugano Cup" (Coppa Lugano).

In fact, that Cup was a symbol of protest: protest against the Swiss decision, of 1956, not to participate in the Melbourne Olympics. That particular Olympics actually suffered two boycotts: one by Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, against the Israeli control of the Suez Canal; the second, by Holland, Spain and Switzerland, in protest at the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising. However, in Switzerland, there were a large number of protests and the National Olympic Committee voted to participate: but it was too late for many athletes – among them the race walkers – to enter the Games.

It was the intention of the founder that the Lugano Cup be, above all, a team event: and so it has remained, even when the IAAF decided in 1983, to give the event world championship status. The rules have remained unchanged since the beginning: five athletes may participate for each nation, with points from the best three athletes counting.

In the beginning, and up until 1981, the Cup was a purely male affair, but after a trial in the 1979 edition, in Eschborn, the event was also opened to women.

There is not a single one of the great race walkers of the past thirty years who has not participated in either the Lugano Cup or the IAAF World Cup of Race Walking.

This is borne out by the list of past winners: from Ken Matthews, the last great English race walker (together with the Olympic 50km champion from Rome, Donald Thompson) to Abdom Pamich (ITA) in 1961; from Christoph Hohne (GDR) to Daniel Bautista (MEX); to the last two victors: Jefferson Perez in the 20km and Spain’s Angel Jesus Garcia, in the 50km, in the excellent edition in Podebrady, in 1997, where Russia was victorious in both the men and women team events.

Giorgio Reineri for the IAAF