Wait ... that's an Olympic event?

Olympic race walking doesn't get a lot of love. But the sport  – and the looks top competitors get when training – are tough.

Ever watch the Olympics and think: “This … is an Olympic sport?”

Enter race walking, that hip-swiveling track and field event that gets a lot of attention for its unique ”look."

But race walkers are not to be confused with a gaggle of grandmas, chugging their arms as they huff through a suburban shopping mall.

“It’s a unique combination of speed, endurance, strength, and flexibility that you don’t find in any other event,” says Vincent Peters, USA Track and Field Race Walking Committee chairman and high school track coach.

The sport requires the stride-rate of an 800 to 1500-meter runner, and a race walker’s endurance is the equivalent of a world-class marathoner, says Mr. Peters. “Only you’re going longer.”

The 50-kilometer (31 mile) race walk is the longest-distance race in the Olympic Games, about five miles longer than a marathon. Men compete in a field of about 60 athletes in the 20-km and 50-km walk (Aug. 4 and Aug. 11, respectively), while women compete in the 20-km race only (Aug. 11).

“It’s harder than running. Much harder than running,” says Peters, who is both a runner and race walker. The very same technical aspects that cause an athlete’s hips to dip and rise with each stride are what make the event so challenging. 

How is it judged?

The Olympic course is a 2-kilometer loop with nine judges – including a head judge – spread evenly throughout. Judges watch closely for two things: making sure one foot is on the ground at all times, and confirming that when an athlete’s foot hits the ground, his or her knee is locked.

If a judge feels an athlete needs to be cautioned for getting close to breaking the strict rules, they flash a yellow paddle.

“You’ll see them [during this week’s races],” says Peters. “People will be pushing the limits, especially at the Olympic games.”

If a judge notices a direct violation of technique they flash a red card. Once a participant has received three red cards they are ejected from the race. The red cards must come from three different judges. All the sport's judges hail from different countries.

Out of 60 athletes, there may be three to six who will be disqualified during a race, Peters says. “It’s harder to maintain form as you get tired.”

The 'funny wobble'

But really, must the walkers swagger so?

“When you start to go fast, the physics are such that your body wants to pull your foot up off the ground,” says Jim Heys, a former US collegiate race walker. “The technique – and the reason you have that funny wobble – is you drop your hip down to keep your foot on the ground until the other one comes up.”

Race walkers get their fair share of heckling. While training in Kenosha,Wisc., in college, Mr. Heys remembers a pickup truck zooming past his team one morning. A guy standing in the flatbed threw a beer bottle at the walkers and peppered them with expletives.

“People are totally rude,” Heys says. “So you have to be a fairly confident … independent person to race walk.” Sure, a bottle isn’t chucked at race walkers every day, but “people definitely look at you funny.”

London 2012

Race walking has been an Olympic event since 1904, and women began competing in Olympic race walking in 1992. Today the event is dominated by athletes from China and Russia, but Latin America has made a strong showing as well, Peters says.

He’s hoping for an upset during the London Games. “No one is a shoo-in for the gold this year.”

Heys says he gets why race walking might not be as popular to watch as swimming or gymnastics. “It’s not particularly interesting if you haven’t really done it before,” he says.

“Go out and try it. Time yourself to see how fast you can go, and then watch,” Heys advises. “What walkers are doing in the Olympics? It’s totally crazy.”

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