The 50k Race Walk, photo courtesy of World Athletics
The 50k Race Walk is the longest event on the Olympic event schedule. Held since 1932, the 50k sadly is being decommissioned due to, in part, due to its history.
Race Walkers have the oxygen update of highly trained cross country skiers, and their ability to red line, get as close to pushing their limits, is caught by photographers in many global events. It is part of that toughness that calls some to the event.
Elliot Denman, a 1956 Olympian at the 50k, defends his beloved event in this piece.
Sadly Speaking, The Sapporo 50K
Will Be The 20th And Final In The Annals Of
“The Longest and Toughest Event”
On The Olympic Games Athletics Program
BY ELLIOTT DENMAN
To be sure, Tommy Green, Harold Whitlock, John Ljunggren, Giuseppe Dordoni, Norm Read,
Don Thompson, Bernd Kannenberg, and Hartwig Gauder are getting hugely agitated in their
respective final resting places.
These Olympic Games greats, gold medalists all, no longer walk among us.
But for certain, they said their farewells knowing that their place in the archives of the Games was a secure one straight through to the moments they drew their final breaths.
They’d all done glorious things leading the way in the longest and toughest of all events on the
athletics program of the Games. If they weren’t true sportsmen and gentlemen, they might even have
pooh-poohed the performances of all those other fellow Olympians whose events were over in
a matter of mere seconds, for some, and minutes, for others.
They might even have gloated that their specialty event was nearly five miles longer, and took a whole lot longer to complete than that other Olympic event requiring hours of sweat and toil. You know, the marathon run.
But that wasn’t in their character. They were content in their triumphs, knowing that those relative few who really studied the whole gamut of Games results gave their specialty event the appreciation and respect it surely merited.
Times, though, are-a-changing. The Games-makers, and their major media allies, it seems, can no longer be troubled by an event that now takes at least three and a half hours to complete, and once upon a time – my time, actually – took most of four hours and sometimes into the fives.
And so, all this build-up is to tell you that the men’s 50-kilometer racewalk at the Games of the
XXXII Olympiad is almost certainly bound to be the 20th and final of the series that began with
Britisher Tommy Green’s triumph at Los Angeles in 1932.
For reasons never fully made clear, the 50K event (which is 31.1 miles) was “given its walking papers,” so to speak, beginning with the Paris Games of 2024.
While the 20K racewalk event – considered a “sprint” event to all true believers – will apparently remain on the Paris 2024 program, its far-longer companion piece, the 50K, seems destined to be replaced by a 35K event that will have some kind of mixed-gender format, still (as of this moment) to be finalized.
But why replace “the longest and toughest event” at all? A good look at the Tokyo schedule of events will give you all the clues you need. They’ll tell you it takes too darn long. They’ll allege it’s not
“telegenic.” They’ll tell you it’s not relevant to today’s rush-rush days of our lives.
They’ll tell you that you’re not going to see the kids of the planet taking 50K walks “for the fun of it all.”
They’ll tell you racewalking’s just not “with it” the way surfing, climbing, skateboarding, and, heck, even karate – that new TV audience-pullers – seem to so many others. What’s next to these decision-makers – tandem breakdancing, freestyle skydiving, classical tango?
But don’t let them ever tell you racewalking is “not urban enough.” What’s more universal than a long hike through city streets? What’s the most universal of all fitness activities for that matter? Walking, of course. And the Olympic racewalkers are its premier practitioners. But they’re being minimalized nevertheless.
So there we have it. The “Tokyo” 50K isn’t even being held in Tokyo. It’s been relegated to Sapporo, some 500 miles north of Tokyo, on another island, actually. (Along with the Sapporo-bound marathon runs for men and women; hoping for less distressful conditions.) And this 20th Olympic 50K remains a men’s event only. Rather than do the rational thing and add a women’s Olympic 50K – as many have demanded – the 50K is being retired as an Olympic event for both men and women.
Truth be told, this situation irks the hell out of me, too; along with the descendants and remaining appreciators of Tommy Green, Harold Whitlock, et al. The reason is obvious. I was an Olympic 50K walker, too. At Melbourne, Australia, on Nov. 24, 1956, to be exact.
Out the stadium gates we went, fifteen-plus miles down Dandenong Road, etc., then fifteen-plus miles back to the stadium. I wasn’t even close to winning a medal – few know this, but of course, all Olympians earn other medals, and these are participants’ medals. Just one American has ever won a 50K walk medal – and that was Larry Young, with his third place back of East Germany’s Christoph Hohne in 1968 and West Germany’s Kannenberg in 1972. And just one man has ever won it more than once – that was Poland’s superstar, Robert Korzeniowski, with his incredible, centuries-spanning three-peat in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
But – unless the situation takes a drastic U-turn somewhere down the road, and don’t get your hopes up about it – the Sapporo 50K champion will be the 20th and last in an amazing series. Sadly, you’ll need to go to the
list of “discontinued events” to get the names of all those past winners.
The event has been full of all these gutsy guys over the years, slogging it out on the roads of Olympic cities from those “down under” (Melbourne, Sydney, Rio) to those “up top” ) L.A., Berlin, London, Helsinki, Rome, Tokyo,
Mexico City, Munich, Moscow, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Athens, and Beijing. Truth be told, they loved every step of their long journeys. They loved reminding people their event was the “longest and the toughest.” And now, for all that effort, they’re being told to “go take a hike.” Somewhere else.
For sure, mainstream media isn’t about to tell you any of this. So – proud as I am to be a member of that legion of “the longest and toughest” – I’m doing it for you, right here and right now.