The butt of Olympic jokes today, race walking used to be an American favorite

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The men’s and women’s race walking events continued at the Rio Olympics on Friday, and so did the Internet’s jokes about the sport.

Vice reporter Joel Golby’s question may be snarky, but it’s also answerable. No, people don’t fall into race walking because they’re not that great at running.

For starters, race walking isn’t just slow running. It requires an entirely different technique. Considering you can bend both your knees however you like in running, in race walking the leading leg must be completely straightened when it makes contact with the ground and stay that way until it’s lifted again. The other major difference from running is that race walkers must have at least one foot touching the ground at all times. If race walkers violate either of those two rules, a judge, who closely follows the athletes throughout the race (that’s either 20 or 50 kilometers in the Olympics), will dole out a red-card violation. Get three red cards and you’re out. The IAAF – track and field’s world governing body, which oversees race walking – produced a 22-minute introductory video about the sport accompanied by some sweet electric guitar riffs that you can watch below for additional technical information.

Technique aside, however, race walking has always been a separate sport from running, and according to Matthew Algeo – author of the book “Pedestrianism,” which traces the sport’s roots – it was far more popular than running, too, in the past.

“Watching people walk was America’s favorite spectator sport,” Algeo told NPR’s Robert Siegel in 2014. “In the decades after the Civil War there was mass urbanization in the United States. [with] millions of people moving into the cities. And there wasn’t much for them to do in their free time, so pedestrianism – competitive walking matches – filled a void for people. It became quite popular quite quickly. ”

Algeo writes that people would come from all over to watch men (women didn’t participate in race walking until a century later) compete in races that lasted hundreds of miles, often in large arenas or stadiums.

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“They were on the track almost continuously,” he told NPR. “They’d have little cots set up inside the track where they would nap a total of maybe three hours a day. But generally, for 21 hours a day, they were in motion walking around the track. ”

A New York Times article from 1876 that Deadspin dug up in 2012 explains the intensity of the sport at the time.

Talking about a race in progress that saw two men each race more than 1,000 miles, the paper describes one of the participant’s conditions:

“On Sunday last, according to the time-keeper, [John] DeWitt was quite ill, and reeled about while walking, like a drunken man, and at times, when ‘time’ was called, seemed unable to comprehend the word, or to hear it, and the time-keeper was obliged to go to him. and take hold of him in order to stop him. ”

As for the other guy, Peter Goulding, he “was taken sick on Thursday of the week before last, the result, as he claims of the effects of some drug mixed with a small amount of brandy which he swallowed at that time.”

The men kept going, however, partly because of another reason the sport became a favorite in America in the late 19th century. The racer’s “backers,” mentioned by the Times, who kept wagering more money on them, demanding that they didn’t quit.

“Gambling was a big part of the allure, no doubt about it,” Algeo told NPR. “You could bet on who would be the first pedestrian to drop out of the race, who would be the first pedestrian to, say, achieve 100 miles in a race. There were so many different ways you could gamble on the walking matches. ”

Remember the oiled-up guy from the Opening Ceremonies? He’ll finally get to compete.

By the turn of the century, “pedestrianism” became so popular that it was added to the 1904 Olympics as part of the decathlon. Not satisfied, race walkers finally got their own event in 1932, but it was a far cry from the thousand-mile races of the past. The event was only (and, I use that word relatively) 50 kilometers.

A second men’s event, a 20-kilometer race, was added in 1956, and the women finally got their own event, a 20-kilometer race, in 1992. The women remain without a 50-kilometer race in the Olympics, however.

Although the sport took America by storm 100 years ago, today the United States lags behind other countries. No American woman has ever medaled in the event, and the last time an American man made it to the podium was in 1972, when Larry Young took home the bronze in the 50-kilometer event. Young also won the bronze in the same event four years prior.

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Last Friday, China’s Wang Zhen took home the gold in the men’s 20-kilometer event, while no American even qualified for that race.

Meanwhile, the men’s 50-kilometer race was underway Friday morning. Team USA’s John Nunn remained in the mix, although he is not one of the favorites to win.

The women’s race is scheduled for Friday afternoon, when two Americans – Miranda Melville and Maria Michta-Coffey – will vie for a spot on the podium.

Michta-Coffey, who competed in 2012 in London, realizes she’s a long shot, though. She told Newsday this week that she’d be happy to finish in the top 20. (She finished in 28th place in 2012.)

“The goal is still to give it my all,” she said. “I want to race against my competitors to the best of my ability. And boy, am I ready! ”

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