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. ”
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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! ”