Existential Walking. Or: Can I Only See It Because I Know It’s There?

Like every Olympics and Commonwealth Games before it, Delhi 2010 has once again shown that the sport with the least self-respect is race walking. Can anyone not affiliated with the sport actually take it seriously?

Rule 230.1 of the International Association of Athletics Federations states that “Race Walking is a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground, so that no visible (to the human eye) lost of contact occurs. The advancing leg shall be straightened (i.e. not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until the vertical upright position.”

Of course, it’s the qualifier “to the human eye” that makes race walking the joke that it is. Well, that and the gyrating hips and the inherent obvious question as to why walking fast is actually an athletic pursuit. But I digress. The point is that if there was a sport ever in need of a video referee, it’s race walking.

For we all know that they’re running. We’ve seen the slow-motion replays that prove that every racer actually has both feet off the ground at the same time. And so we watch the “highlights” of Jared Tallent’s win in Delhi and turn to our colleagues around our lounge rooms and say: “What a joke – he’s clearly running!”

Because he was.

In fact – as you can see here – the video studies of race walkers that are supposed to be excellent training tools for youngsters show that to succeed in race walking, you should have both feet off the ground at the same time.

But the question remains: “Is it visible to the human eye?”

Which, of course, is a ludicrous question that is completely impossible to answer.

Every judge, and every person watching at home, knows that the fastest walkers have both feet off the ground at the same time. Take a look at the highlights from the 2009 Australian Championships. Just watch the first minute. Are they running? Watch the lead two break away about 43 seconds into the clip. They’re running, right? Surely they don’t always have a foot on the ground!

Of course, we know that they don’t. Pausing the clip shows that they find themselves in mid-air on almost every step. (As an aside, I especially love the piece of commentary about a minute in: “Adams walked within himself back in third.” Walking within one’s self is such a beautifully existential concept.)

But is this breach of the rules visible “to the human eye”?

We all think we can see them running when we watch them in fast motion, because we know that they are running as we’ve seen them in slow motion. So if you know that the walkers are actually running, how can you determine whether or not your eye can actually see it? How can you judge what your eye can actually see when your brain already knows what your eye is trying to determine?

If a judge disqualifies a walker for running, they can always prove they were correct in their decision, as the tape will show that the racer was running. However, according to the current rules, such a judge could be highly criticised:

“Yes, the tape shows that they were certainly running,” the IAAF officials would say, “but we’re not convinced that you could have determined that without video assistance.”

So race walking judges around the world are supposed to guess. They know walkers are running, but they have to determine whether or not they are running blatantly enough to actually call them on it.

It is the most farcical judgment call in sport. When Jane Saville famously broke down in tears as she was disqualified while leading the 20km race and about to enter the Sydney Olympic stadium in 2000, the country was apalled…in a strange sort of way. Sure, she was running and should have been disqualified, we said, but so were the eventual medalists!

And yet, 10 years later, race walking persists.

For even though the IAAF argue that their judges can’t actually see what everyone knows is happening, race walking will continue off into its Olympic future.

And every time it appears on television, casual sporting fans will see it for what it is: laughable.

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One Response to Existential Walking. Or: Can I Only See It Because I Know It’s There?

  1. Tiane says:

    I wasn’t so much appalled at the fact she was disqualified.

    I was appalled at the cameraman who wouldn’t get out of her face as her dream died.

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