by Elliott Denman
August 11, 2012
LONDON – It’s brutal enough being an Olympic 50-kilometer race walker.
Thirty-one miles and 120 yards of roadwork is pretty blistery tough to begin with.
Then there’s the matter of technique – satisfy the requirements of the international panel of racewalking judges and you’re OK, Jack; Incur their wrath, though, and you’ll be tossed soon as the chief judge can whip out the old red paddle.
Then there’s the matter of atmospherics – catch a cool, mild day and you’ll be mighty fortunate, but catch one like Saturday’s on The Mall – sunny with temps rising to higher 70s by just past midday and you know you’re in trouble.
Oh, and as to your status in the track and field phase of the Games, this just in: Want an invitation back to Olympic Stadium? Easy!! All you need to do is reel off 31 consecutive miles at just over 7-minute mile pace and hope that it lands you in the Top Three.
Yes, folks, that’s the way it is today.
Almost surely Olympic (and World Championships) race walking will never again start on the stadium track, proceed a lap or two, then head to the exits for the outside loop course where the great bulk of the race would then be held, and after all that, walk back into the stadium for the (usually) final 300-meter dash to the finish line.
The way of racewalking’s big-time future is the enclosed loop course, usually 2Ks worth, preferably in some iconic location in center city. It went that way for the 2000 World Championships in Berlin, where the three racewalks (as well as two Marathons) wound up at the Brandenburg Gate. It went that way for the 2011 Worlds in Daegu, where all the road races were held in city center. And that’s the way it was in center London Saturday.
The 2K loop – mapped to the centimeter by master course engineer David Katz of Port Washington, N.Y. – took place entirely at The Mall (pronounce it “mal,” as in malpractice, as in Mal Whitfield) and within the Queen’s special reserve that is known as Green Park.
Just as in Berlin, just as in Daegu, it worked out to perfection.
The audience – estimated to be at least 10,000 – turned out to yell, scream, wave (flags), bang (the wooden sideboards) and enjoy.
Heat, sun and all, this was a truly brilliant morning to be in the park. And these grizzled 50K guys – the announcer kept reminding them they were competing in the longest and toughest of events in Olympic athletics (translation: track and field) and “on the hottest day of the Olympics, too” – responded in kind.
They gave the crowd plenty to yell, screamed, wave and bang for.
Responding most impressively of all were Russia’s Sergey Kidyapkin, winner in the Olympic record time of 3:35.59; Aussie Jared Tallent, walker-up 3:36:53, also under Oly record figures, and third-placer Tianfeng Si (no, not short for Cyrus or Seymour) of China, 3:37:16. They were invited back to Olympic Stadium for the medal ceremony at 8:10 pm.
Fifty-K life is cruel in one more way: no Stadium invites for all the others.
Sixty-four men started out at 9 a.m.; 51 finished, four DNFed, eight were DQed.
Ireland, once a major distance power, still is; but now it’s in distance racewalking. Team Eire’s Robert Heffernan placed a solid fourth in 3:37:54, just millimeters ahead of #2 Russian Igor Erokhin (3:37:54, too) with the #3 Russian and #2 Sergey, Bakulin, sixth in 3:38:55.
Forty men broke four hours, once considered the magic marker of world-class walking.
Australian former world record holder Nathan Deakes was 22nd in 3:48:45.
USA’s John Nunn walked his fastest-ever 50K, 4:03.28, to place 43rd. Great Britain’s
Dominic King snared 51st in 4:15.05.
How really fast is all this? To those of a marathon running instinct, the top men were
walking along at 3:0ish marathon clip. And then going five miles more.
Despite all these extraordinary performances by extraordinary athletes, the hot-button issue in racewalking these days is the shock banishment of Italy’s Alex Schwazer, on self-admitted EPO drug charges.
Tallent had placed second to Schwazer in the 2008 Beijing 50K, but he’s not leaping up
to demand that he be immediately upgraded to the gold that Schwazer will likely be vacating.
All he’d say was that, now that a once-throught worthy comrade had been found to be a drug cheat, It was a very sad day for every last resident of racewalkersville.