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Explained: Race walking in Olympics and Indians who are in the fray in Tokyo

Competitors in action during the 20 kilometres Race Walk Final during day eight of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha
Competitors in action during the 20 kilometres Race Walk Final during day eight of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha
ANALYST

Race walking is an athletic event which is held for all age levels. It is part of every multi-sport event featuring athletics.

Race walking is different from running in that it requires one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Failure to do so is known as ‘lifting’. Also, race walking has a “straight leg rule”. According to this rule, the advancing leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and should remain straight until the body passes over it. In a 'straight leg', the knee cannot bend. Participants are penalized for bending their knees.

Three violations lead to the disqualification of a walker from the race.

Unlike other track and field events, race walking doesn't permit the use of technology. The judges rely on their naked eyes to make rulings and video technology is not employed.

At the Olympics, there are two events in race walking. The 20-km race walk and the 50-km race walk. The 20-km race walk involves both men and women, while the 50-km race walk is exclusively for men. The 50-km race walk for women is a new event and was first added to the World Athletic Championships in 2017.

Origin of race walking

Race walking is around 400 years old and traces its origins to England. In the early years of race walking, participants would try and complete 100 miles in 24 hours.

Race walking was first included in the Olympics in 1904. Initially, race walking was a part of of the 10-event ‘All-Around Championship’. The 10-event 'All-Around Championship' was a precursor to the modern-day decathlon. In the next edition of the Olympics, race walking was made a separate event with two race lengths of 1500m and 3000m. The 20-km women's race walk was first introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Race walking world records

Japan's Yusuke Suzuki holds the world record in the men's 20km race walk. In 2015, he completed the race in 1:16:36 at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi. Yohann Diniz of France holds the world record in the men's 50km race walk. The Frenchman created the world record while competing in the 2014 European Athletic Championships in Zurich when he completed the race in 3:32:33.

In March this year, China's Yang Jiayu broke the world record in women's 20km race walk while competing in the Chinese Race Walking Championships in Huangshan. She finished the race in 1:23.00 to break her own world record.

The women's world record in the 50km race walk has been recorded by another Chinese athlete. Liang Rui created the world record in the event when she finished the race in 4:04:36 at the 2018 IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang.

Also read: 5 athletics world records broken ahead of Tokyo Olympics 2020

Who are the Indian reace walkers at Tokyo Olympics 2020?

Four men and two women have qualified in race walking for the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Sandeep Kumar, Rahul Rohilla and KT Irfan will be competing in 20km race walk. Gurpreet Singh will be India's sole representative in the 50km race walk.

Priyanka Goswami and Bhawna Jat will be competing in the women's 20km race walk.

Can India win a medal in race walking?

Men's 20km race walk

China's Whang Zhen is the reigning Olympic champion in the men's 20km race walk. At the Rio Olympics, he completed the race in 1:19:14. At the London Olympics, Chen Ding of China claimed the gold medal in the men's 20m km race walk with a time of 1:18:46. At the Beijing Summer Games, Valeriy Borchin of Russia claimed the gold medal in the men's 20km race walk with a time of 1:19:01.

Sandeep Kumar's personal best in the 20km race walk currently stands at 1:24:50. Rahul's best time in the event is 1:20:26. KT Irfan's best recorded time in the 20km race walk is 1:20:21.

The personal best of the three Indian race walkers would not have been good enough for them to clinch a gold medal at the previous three Olympics. The three Indian race walkers would have also found it difficult to grab bronze with their best timings in the previous three Olympic races.

Men's 50km race walk

Slovakia's Matej Tóth, Australia's Jared Tallent and Italy's Alex Schwazer have been the last three Olympic champions in the men's 50km race walk. The gold medal-winning timings at Rio, London and Beijing were 3:40:58 (Matej Tóth), 3:36:53 (Jared Tallent) and 3:37:09 (Alex Schwazer).

In contrast, Gurpreet Singh's personal best has been recorded at 3:59:42. Gurpreet's personal best would have helped him finish at around 28th in Rio, at around 37th position in London and 25th position in Beijing.

Women's 20km race walk

Liu Hong of China, Elena Lashmanova of Russia and Olga Kaniskina of Russia are the previous three Olympic champions in the women's 20km race walk. Their gold-medal winning times were as follows: 1:28:35 for Liu Hong, 1:25:02 for Elena Lashmanova and 1:26:31 for Olga Kaniskina.

Priyanka Goswami's personal best is 1:28:45. Countrywoman Bhawna Jat has recorded a personal best of 1:29:54.

Neither Priyanka Goswami's personal best, nor Bhawna Jat's personal best would have been good enough for them to put them in gold medal position in the previous three Olympic races. They would have been out of contention for the bronze medal too in the title races.

So clearly, it will be very difficult for the Indian race walkers to return with a medal from Tokyo. They will have to 'walk' the races of their lifetime to script history and finish on the podium.

Also read: What is the steeplechase? Can India's Avinash Sable win a medal?

Edited by S Chowdhury
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