Racewalking is one of those Olympic events that sounds a bit silly at first. Anybody can walk, you might think. How on earth could walking fast be an Olympic sport?
The truth is that most Olympic racewalkers can walk a mile faster than you can run one.
In fact, racewalking is nowhere near as easy as it sounds: It’s a sport that requires an awe-inspiring combination of speed, endurance, and sheer willpower.
INSIDER spoke with American racewalker and first-time Olympian Miranda Melville to learn more about the sport — and what it’s really like to race.
Racewalking is not the same thing as normal walking.
For one thing, competitors move at a blistering pace: Melville said she can racewalk a mile in six minutes, thirty-five seconds.
Just take a look at these racewalkers during 2008’s Beijing Olympics.
And this isn’t just a quick lap or two around the track. At the Olympics, athletes walk either 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) or 50 kilometers (31 miles). The latter race is the longest track-and-field event in the Olympics.
The hardest thing about racewalking is resisting the urge to run.
As Vox described the sport: It’s “like if NASCAR drivers had to drive with the parking brake engaged.”
Racewalking rules dictate that competitors must keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. Also, their knees must be totally straight when the foot hits the ground, and stay straight until the leg passes under the body. These are both indicators that the competitors are racewalking, not running.
At each race, judges from different countries stand around the course and keep an eye on walkers’ technique. If a walker is almost breaking the rules, a judge will hold out a yellow paddle as a warning. If a walker flat-out breaks the rules three times during a race, a judge holds out a red paddle. This means instant disqualification. (Here’s a video of walkers and judges in action at the London Olympics in 2012.)
The sport originated in a very weird way.
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), racewalking dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when footmen would walk alongside their masters’ horse-drawn coaches. Eventually, the masters started placing bets on the racing footmen, and the sport grew in popularity. By the 19th century, it was known as “pedestrianism.” Racewalking first appeared in the Olympics in 1904.
Female racewalkers are fighting for gender equity.
Melville didn’t choose the 20-kilometer race over the 50-kilometer: There simply isn’t a 50-kilometer race for women at the Olympic level. Right now, the 50-kilometer racewalk is the only Olympic event open to men but not women.
Women weren’t allowed to racewalk in the Olympics until 1992, and even then, they were only allowed to race 10 kilometers, according to the IAAF. (Men had already been racing 20 kilometers since 1956.) It wasn’t until 2000 that women were able to race 20 kilometers, too.
“There is a motion in progress to try and get a women’s 50-kilometer into the World Championship and Olympic level,” Melville said. “So perhaps in 2020 women will have two events.”
Melville is one of just three racewalkers on Team USA.
Melville, now 27, took up racewalking when she was a 14-year-old high school freshman. She was disqualified from her very first race.
She grew up in New York, where racewalking is an official high school sport — but in many states, it’s not. It’s also not recognised by the NCAA, and this lack of recognition hampers the sport’s popularity in the US.
“We lose out on having younger generations continue with the sport because we don’t have strong programs to build from,” Melville said.
She’s come a long way from her first race 13 years ago.
“Leaving high school, I thought I had the possibility of making an Olympic team, but it wasn’t until a couple of years into college that I realised how much I wanted this and became so determined,” she said.
She barely missed qualifying for the London games in 2012. The following year, she faced major setbacks, including 4 broken ribs, Anemia, plantar fasciitis, and a disqualification at her first World Championship race. Melville was on the verge of quitting, but after taking a month off, she willed herself to try again.
That decision paid off: In early 2016, she set new personal records, and in June, she placed second at the Olympic trials, finally qualifying for Team USA. Since then, she’s been training for Rio by racewalking 70 to 80 miles per week and lifting weights three times weekly.
“There have been so many ups and downs through this journey,” she said. “It can be tiring, but it has all been worth it.”
Melville and teammate Maria Michta-Coffey will compete in the women’s 20-kilometer race this Friday, August 19. Team USA’s only other racewalker, John Nunn, competes in the 50-kilometer race the same day.
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