The world 50km race walk champion talks about the long journey he has undertaken for his discipline to be taken seriously in France and beyond.
Determined to be taken seriously
“I was fortunate to enjoy a good foundation as a race walker in my younger days. My first coach, Michel Lemercier, taught me the fundamentals of the sport and the technical basics. He also successfully introduced sessions with different rhythms. Under his training I progressed quickly.
“However, what really concerned me was some of the mockery I received from certain people when I trained outside the stadium. Insults and rude imitations. I thought to myself, why do people make fun of race walking? Why do I receive so many funny looks?
“I did not understand why people reacted this way, so to avoid incident I opted to train on quiet country roads with little traffic.
“Yet I was determined for people to take me seriously, so after some time I returned to more public settings to train. I said to myself, ‘I have a right to train where I want. It is up to you (the public) to accept this.’
“In 2006 I earned my big breakthrough by winning 50km gold at the European Championships. The media suddenly became interested in me, so I thought I would seize this opportunity to give my discipline some exposure and make race walking better known and understood among the general public.
“With the help of the national federation, my manager and partners, we helped introduce a 5000m race walk into the newly formed national athletics league circuit, where we competed at the same meets as athletes such as Renaud Lavillenie, Christophe Lemaitre and Melina Robert-Michon.
“I wanted to give exposure to newcomers and the future stars of race walking and for the public to see what an exhilarating spectacle the 5000m race walk can be. When watching the 5000m race walk, many people have been amazed and commented how they can’t believe how fast we walk.
“The next year I won 50km silver at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka and this further amplified the interest in me, which created wider interest in race walking. Over time my journey has evolved and media interest grown because I so often act as the hare to the other race walkers. I have experienced some good and bad results, but I think this has helped create a more compelling story.
“On the back of this, I was invited to compete at major races such as the New York Marathon, which gained widespread TV coverage.
“I also enjoy motivational school talks and inspiring more kids to race walk. Many of the youngsters were reluctant at first, but after as the session progressed they started to have a lot of fun. Athletics is running, jumping, throwing and race walking. There is room for everyone!
“I am proud I have been able to help my sport grow, not only in France but also abroad, and that we are being recognised for our true values and our great physical and mental qualities – just like other athletes.
“I think this has led to race walkers being allowed to train without fear of mockery and we now have a promising young generation of race walkers in France. I hope that when I retire from the sport this will be my legacy.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF