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This article is guest blogged by Paul Hoffman from My Two Cents: Thoughts of a Small Town Therapist.
His previous articles were Notes from Underground: A Rookie Master’s Sprinter Diary , Asafa Powell is NOT a Choker and An Open Letter to Mr. Usain Bolt
By definition, sport must be as objective as possible to be credible. Though recent advances in technology have vastly improved accuracy, human judgment remains. However, there are sports that are all judgment – though certainly they have standardized criteria – such as gymnastics and diving. There are sports where some aspects are subjective – such as baseball (determination of balls and strikes) or hockey (determination of a penalty). The most objective sports are those that quantify points scored or time elapsed.
The sport of race walking has undergone many definitions in the past 136 years, most of it around the issue of ground contact. The principal difference between running and walking is that the former has a flight phase, and the latter does not.
“To be a good and fair walker, the attitude should be upright or nearly so, with the shoulders well back, and the arms when in motion held well up in a bent position, and at every stride swinging with the movement of the legs well across the chest, which should be well thrown out. The loins should be slack to give plenty of freedom to the hips, and the leg perfectly straight, thrown out from the hip boldly and directly in front of the body, and allowed to reach the ground with the heel being decidedly the first portion of the foot to meet it. The movement of the arms will keep the balance of the body and bring the other leg from the ground.”
In 1900 (which meets the usual definition of any kind of walking vis a vis the maintenance of ground contact):
- “That a racing walker must have contact with the ground with one foot during a stride, and with both feet at the end of a stride.
- That the heel of the front foot must touch the ground before the back foot leaves it.
- That as the heel of the front foot touches the ground the leg must not be bent, its knee must be locked.
- That the body and head must be kept upright. “
”Walking is progression by steps so taken that unbroken contact with the ground is maintained.”
“Walking is progression by steps so taken that unbroken contact with the ground is maintained. At each step, the advancing foot of the walker must make contact with the ground before the rear foot leaves the ground.”
- “Definition. Walking is progression by steps so taken that unbroken contact with the ground is maintained.
- Judging. Judges of walking must be careful to observe that the advancing foot of the walker must make contact with the ground before the rear foot leaves the ground, and in particular, that during the period of each step in which a foot is on the ground, the leg shall be straightened (i.e. not bent at the knee) at least for one moment.”
“Walking is progression by steps so taken that unbroken contact with the ground is maintained. At each step, the advancing foot of the walker must make contact with the ground before the rear foot leaves the ground. During the period of each step when a foot is on the ground, the leg must be straightened (i.e. not bent at the knee) at least for one moment, and in particular, the supporting leg must be straight in the vertical upright position.”
Finally, the present rule, since 1996:
“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) loss 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.”
In other words, you are allowed to break ground contact if no one observes it. Technological proof doesn’t matter. Whoever heard of being allowed to break a fundamental rule of a sport as long as no one sees? That is like allowing aluminum bats in baseball (as long as you’re not caught)!
The last rule change acknowledged the reality that fast racewalkers were leaving the ground, that is, having a flight phase as in running. Yet this most essential aspect of the sport was left to human visual judgment. As a result, the sport is plagued by frequent disqualifications at the highest levels due to judgment that is not objectively verified. That is, a competitor is told that he is doing this sport incorrectly. In no other sport would a competitor be told that he is not meeting the most definitive aspect of the sport, in this case maintaining ground contact. (A possible exception is the breaststroke in swimming.)
What is unique, and in my view, philosophically untenable about the current state of competitive racewalking, is that the essential and defining characteristic of the sport as a whole is subjective. Even in judged sports such as gymnastics and diving, the competitors are being evaluated on very specific elements. No one is being told that he is doing the sport completely wrong. But when a racewalker gets disqualified it’s because they are judged to be getting the sports’ essence all wrong.
A sport must have primarily objective parameters, otherwise it’s art – an interpretive discipline.
I think that the governing bodies of the sport should either allow or disallow a flight phase. No more, “you can fly a little but not a lot, depending on the judge’s vision”. The racers already know that they’re ‘flying’. If it were completely disallowed, they would maintain ground contact, because the cameras would catch them. If it’s allowed, then there will be no more splitting hairs.