Walkers in the early stages of the 50K event at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Even as I write these words from Boston, home to world’s most storied footrace, across the Atlantic Ocean the IAAF is meeting in London and appears ready to recommend eliminating the ultimate test of endurance, the longest of pedestrian events, from the Olympic Games.
No, I’m not talking about the marathon, which is as popular as ever; I’m talking about the 50K walk, which is facing scrutiny in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (c.f., Jeré Longman’s article in today’s New York Times:
Olympic Race Walking Is Faced With a Dilemma).
The problem for the IAAF is two-fold. One issue is that the sport of race-walking is not especially popular, and it lacks a large constituency to argue on its continued inclusion in the Olympics. (A petition to save the 50K on change.org has garnered, as of this writing, only 9000 names — hardly enough to sway the Lords of the Rings). Another issue is that the 50K has always been available to men only, and thus, it is a problem considering modern standards for gender equity in athletics.
To address the second issue, the IAAF could recommend adding a women’s 50K racewalk to the Olympic program, but Athletics, in general, is already considered to be “expensive” in the number and variety of events (and athletes). It seems far more likely that the IAAF will recommend eliminating, rather than adding, events, and the 50K walk would seem to be an obvious target.
I must admit that, like most runners, I know little about race-walking. My club, which has a running section, an orienteering section and a Nordic skiing section, used to have a race-walking section and still has a few dedicated race-walkers, but the section more or less disbanded several years ago for lack of interest. As an enthusiastic fan of Athletics, I have yet to watch an Olympic race-walking event from start to finish, and mostly, they aren’t covered in the U.S. anyway. So in terms of my own watching habits, I might not even notice if the 50K disappeared.
But my ignorance, and that of the majority of those who tune in every four years, doesn’t mean that the loss of the 50K wouldn’t be significant. In recent Olympic programs, the 50K has been held on the penultimate day of competition, the only morning event on a day of high-profile finals. Medals often go to smaller countries that have almost no shot at glory in the more glitzy Track and Field events. At the Rio Olympics, the 50K produced a stirring race (won by Slovakia’s Matej Tóth, in 3:40:58), and high drama when it came time to award the bronze medal. I even wrote about that race, specifically about the exemplary sportsmanship shown by Canadian Evan Dunfee, who ended up fourth.
I expect that shortly after this post is published, the Olympic 50K walk, which has had an 80-year run (sic) since being introduced at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, will pass into history. It won’t be the first or last time an event will be dropped from the Athletics program. But it will almost certainly be the longest such event. Although I have taken it for granted all these years, I think I will miss it.