The sports seems to get along just fine in the off years, but then every quadrennium, like clockwork, all hell breaks loose when the world is watching. The millennial edition of the Games certainly didn't disappoint in that regard.
In the men's 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) racewalk, world-record holder Bernardo Segura of Mexico sprinted across the finish line ahead of Robert Korzienowski of Poland, but was disqualified several minutes later ? after his victory lap and while receiving a congratulatory phone call from Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
Then, during the women?s 20K, the top three walkers were disqualified one by one, with Aussie Jane Sayville being pulled off the course within 200 meters of the finish before a stadium packed with stunned hometown fans.
The developments befuddled spectators, and prompted outgoing International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch to question the future of the sport's inclusion on the Olympic program.
Who is at fault?
The media, predictably, accused the disqualified walkers of ?cheating.? But in reality, that's like accusing a long-jumper of cheating if he misses his mark three times. The result in that case is the same: disqualification. Why then, when it happens to Marion Jones it's called a tragedy, but when it happens in the walks it's ?cheating??
The difference boils down to two basic problems; one of logistics, the other of public perception.
In most track & field events, disqualifications are very easy to understand: two false starts, three missed heights, three wayward throws, and that's it: game over. The results are immediate.
But that's not always the case in racewalking. While the field events and sprints are fairly self-contained, the Olympic walks are often far from it. The athletes start on the track, but then head out to complete a series of loops on a course outside the stadium. Judges line the course to ensure that the athletes are walking properly. If three separate judges detect violations, the athlete is disqualified.
The problem under the current system is that only one judge, the head judge, is allowed to actually inform the walker that he's been disqualified. If all goes according to plan, it's a good system. It prevents walkers from being pulled off the course accidentally. But it also requires a lot of the head judge. He needs to verify that ?red cards? have been turned in from three separate judges, then he has to actually find the athlete in question ? identified only by his race number ? somewhere on the 2-kilometer course.
When the course is close to the stadium, that's usually not a problem. But when the course lies over 1 kilometer from the finish line at the track, the head judge has an awful lot of ground to cover, so he can't always get to a disqualified walker before the athlete gets into the stadium, as happened in the men's 20 kilometer race this year.
Again, racewalkers understand this, but to the general public it?s like telling the winning team in the World Series to hand over the trophy because the umpire decided 20 minutes after the game to call a third strike he saw back in the 7th inning.
If racewalking?s logistical problems confuse the public, the sport?s terminology leaves the casual observer absolutely dumbfounded. The name ?racewalking? leads the press and the general public to believe that the event is just a bunch of guys trying to walk fast, but biomechanically there?s a world of difference. In fact, racewalking is about as different from fast walking as it is from running.
Even so, as soon as Joe Six-Pack hears that a walker has been disqualified, he automatically assumes that the athlete broke into a run, which is almost never the case. In most cases, Olympic-level athletes are disqualified for ?lifting,? or failing to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times while walking.
It sounds simple enough, but again, the schism between the rules of the sport and public perception winds up giving racewalking a black eye. According to the wording of the rules, athletes may actually come off the ground a bit with each stride, as long as the ?flight phase? can't be detected by the human eye. That may sound dodgy, but it's no different from officials failing to call traveling in basketball, or umpires granting a generous strike zone in baseball.
The call is made by the human eye, and it's understood that there's a bit of a gray area between in and out.
If an athlete comes close but is not clearly off the ground, a judge may issue a ?caution,? which doesn't count against the walker. On the other hand, if the athlete is clearly in violation of the rules, the judge can turn in a red card. Three of these and the athlete is disqualified.
Problem is, our terminology is a mess. It works out just fine in French or Italian or Spanish, but in the English language a red card violation is called a ?warning,? which, last time I checked, means pretty much the same thing as ?caution? in colloquial usage.
Again, the walkers understand the terminology, but the casual observer can't make heads or tails of it. Other sports have similar problems with terminology, but it all makes sense if you grow up with the confusing language. Like in baseball, where if you fail to strike the ball it's called a strike, or in tennis where love means nothing, two aces don't make a deuce, and a point is actually 15, another gives you 30 and a third makes it 40.
At the recent International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) meeting in Lausanne Switzerland, the IAAF Walking Committee met to discuss possible rule changes for the sport, hoping to prevent similar spectacles from recurring. Most of the changes will involve the officials rather than the athletes, and will deal with ways to speed the communication of disqualifications.
Walkie talkies and linked palm pilots will become standard equipment, and more importantly, the task of removing disqualified athletes from the course will be extended to three designated judges rather than devolving solely to the head judge.
Also, the head judge will be stationed at the finish line to immediately disqualify violators before they can get on the horn to mom or the president. And the head judge will be able to disqualify flagrant violators even if they don't have prior red cards lodged against them.
Terminology will also be looked at. The definition of racewalking will be clarified, and the choice of words to describe cautions and warnings will be examined.
Another idea with less likelihood of passage is the recommendation to look into ?shoe alarms,? devices that are designed to light up to signal lifting infractions. These devices have not performed reliably in tests, and raise questions about tampering, technological failure and a host of other problems.
With the exception of the shoe alarms, the new IAAF recommendations should reduce the number of controversial late-race disqualifications and may alleviate some of the confusion brought on by the sport's vague and confusing terminology.
Dave McGovern is a member of the US National Racewalking Team, a racewalking coach and the author of The Complete Guide to Racewalking and The Complete Guide to Marathon Walking. Visit his Worldclass Racewalking Web site at: www.surf.to/worldclass.
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