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A Short History of Racewalking

In the late 16th and early 17th century English aristocrats used “footmen” to accompany their coaches as the gentry traveled about the countryside. A footman’s duties included hurrying ahead of the coach as it approached an inn or country estate so the staff would be prepared for the aristocrats’ arrival. Gambling was popular among the wealthy during that period, and the aristocrats began to wager large amounts on races among their footmen.

Footmen were expected to keep up with a coach without running using a process described as “fair heel and toe.” However, the footmen were “allowed to trot, as necessary, to ward off cramp.”

In the second half of the 18th century races against time grew more popular. The participants, called “pedestrians,” earned significant prize money for reaching a goal  such  as  walking  100  miles  in less than 24 hours (and earning the title “Centurion”) or walking one mile each hour for 1,000 consecutive hours. The latter event lasted 41 days and 16 hours.
In the early 19th century racing between men reemerged, and, bolstered by gambling, became the most popular sport in England. America also embraced walking races, and up to 25,000 onlookers came to witness competitions. Pedestrianism grew in popularity until shortly before the Civil War and then took off again after the war. A 1,136 mile race from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 1867 paid the winner $10,000.

Towns around the country built walking stadiums and indoor tracks. Champions from England and America competed on each other’s soil. Races among women became popular as well. The “Long Distance Championship of the World” race in 1888, a highly successful, six-day event, actually helped bring about the decline of pedestrianism. The rules allowed the athletes to “go-as-you-please,” and running took over.

Amateur competitions, which frequently included walking events, developed contemporaneously in private athletic clubs and colleges. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) formed in the late 1880s, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed in 1893. The first modern Olympic Games in 1896 did not include a walking race. The 1904 Olympic games included an 800-yard walk as a component of the “all-rounder” event, the predecessor of the decathlon. The racewalk was an independent event at the non-recognized 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games and has been a separate event at every official Olympic Games since 1908.

U.S. racewalkers were somewhat successful in the 1920 Olympics, but interest in the sport soon dwindled here and abroad. Henry Laskau rekindled some interest in the United States at mid-century, and other American racewalkers gained attention in the 1960s. The advent of masters track and field competition in the late 1960s brought out older racewalkers.

In 1977 American Todd Scully became the first racewalker to accomplish the long-sought goal of a six-minute mile. Interest and accomplishments grew worldwide during the 1980s, highlighted at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where 28 racewalkers surpassed the 1984 records. In 1992 the Olympics added a racewalking event for women. Improved facilities, training and coaching enhanced the performance of U.S. athletes in recent years.

Both the rules for racewalking and the rulemaking body for amateur sport changed a few times during the 1900s. Early in the century authorities added a requirement that the knee be straightened at some point during a stride. In the 1970s a rule modification provided the knee must not be bent when directly under the body. The Athletics Congress (TAC/USA) superceded the AAU in 1979, and TAC/USA was renamed USA Track & Field (USATF) in 1992. In 1996 rule makers adopted the current requirements that the leg must not be bent at the knee from the moment of first contact with the ground until in the vertical upright position and that there be no loss of contact visible “to the human eye.”

Information for this history of racewalking is from “A Brief History of Racewalking in the United States,” an article by Phil Howell on the Web site of the North American Racewalking Foundation (http://www.eracewalk.com/Narf.htm).  Howell’s article was first published in Walk Talk, the newsletter of the Walking Club of Georgia, and was based upon a dissertation by the late William Gordon Wallace titled “Racewalking in America: Past and Present.” Permission for the use of this material granted by Phil Howell.

Copyright 2015, Brent Bohlen