Competitors compete in the men’s 50km race walk at the 2020 Summer Olympics. A?
The current world record holder in 50km race walk, Yohann Diniz of France, looked down and out, with buckets of his sweat dropping on the floor as he sat on the pavement of the road where the Olympics race was happening in Sapporo, Japan. His hands covering his face, he had quit after the halfway mark. Disappointment written all over his body.
The heat and humidity in Sapporo had taken its toll on the 43-year-old race walking legend. His legs and hips just couldn’t take it anymore, but it was the pain of quitting that reflected more. And it was a double whammy. One, he could not finish the race, forget about winning it. Second, he could not finish the last 50km race walk in the Olympics.
The 50km race walk came to an end in the Olympics as soon as Claudio Villanueva, the 47th and the last man to touch the finish line, completed the race.
That means Poland’s Dawid Tomala is the last gold medalist in the men’s 50 km race walk at the Olympics. Great Britain’s Tommy Green was the first in 1932, when the event was first introduced in the Games. He too is an interesting story, as he lied about his age so that he could fight for his country in the First World War. But that story is for some other day.
Why will the 50km walk no longer be there at the Olympics?
One of the primary reasons given by World Athletics and the International Olympic Committee is that they want to bring more gender equality in athletics and the 50km race walk does not fit into the new system. The 50km is the only race that has no equivalent for women while there is a women’s 20k race walk event in the Olympics.
However, there is more to the cancellation of the 50km, and it has to do with popularity and declining number of viewers which is bad for the market and eventually for the sport to sustain on the road.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, as per Race Running Magazine, in 2019 had defended the move to drop the 50 km walk after the Race Walking committee found that short distances will be more marketable to a new audience.
In the Paris Games, a new mixed team race walking event will be added.
What athletes are saying?
The elite 50 km race walkers are not buying this idea, questioning the move and also upset over how they were never communicated before taking the decision.
Canada’s Evan Dunfee who clinched the bronze medal at the Tokyo 50km race walk is quite outspoken on the issue. He has been critical of the movement for a long time.
In 2019, after the announcement of the development, he had written on his Twitter, “50km is our hallmark event and has the most to offer in terms of drama and excitement… I don’t think simply changing our distances is going to garner new fans. No one who wasn’t watching 50K is suddenly going to be drawn in with 30K of racing.”
Three days ago, after winning his first medal at the Olympics, a bronze, he showed his sadness and anger over it again, calling the move “a terrible mistake.”
He said, “It’s a terrible mistake by the IOC and World Athletics. I think we showcased today that this event belongs in the Olympics.”
He added that if the IOC and World Athletics wanted a solution to bring more gender equality in sport, they could have added the women’s event.
Jonathan Hillbert of Germany, who clinched silver, expressed his sadness over neither IOC nor World Athletics reaching out to the athletes before taking the decision to get rid of the race.
“The problem is that the people in the suits in the World Athletics and IOC, they don’t speak a lot with the athletes. We’ve heard it out of maybe the newspapers or from coaches that they will remove the 50K,” he said.
Dunfee gave more perspective to why athletes should have been consulted before the decision was taken.
He said, “None of us are millionaires. This isn’t a sport you do because you want to be famous and you want to make lots of money. It’s an event that has so much camaraderie. We are all friends. We all suffer together and we do it for the love of it. We do it to see what our body is capable of doing.”
“I think 50km race walkers are amazing role models. I think 50km is a journey. It has so much that can translate to the rest of life about setting goals and having setbacks and continuing to dig deep and fight to just endure.”
One could understand these frustrations from someone who walked 140km to 180km per week in training in the 12 months leading up to the Games.
While the powers-that-be don’t find the race walk a more lucrative option, the last gold medalist in the 50 km Dawid Tomala told the press that he switched from 20km to 50km because he found the former boring. The other reason why he shifted to 50km only this year in March is that he wanted to replicate the feat of his idol Robert Korzeniowski, who won three 50km gold at the Olympics.
Turns out, Tomala will be the last man who won gold at the Games in the 50km race walk. He is a part of history but he would like that to be changed.