The History of Race Walking

Olga Kaniskina holds the 20K women's race walking world record. Photo by Jeff Salvage/Racewalk.com

Introduction to Race Walking

"You do what? ," is pretty much the typical response I get when I tell people I am a race walker. Many people have never heard of it and others mostly refer to it as the funny looking walk or some other derogatory description. Even in a recent TV ad (banned shortly after its release) of Mr. T making fun of a race walker, Mr. T. didn't have enough respect for our sport to call the race walker by its proper name. Instead he called to the individual as a speed walker and shoots Snickers bars at him.

Race walking is the competitive form of athletic walking and--contrary to the beliefs of many--it has a long and colorful history. It's a history that started once upon a time when the world's top athletes were not baseball or basketball players... but pedestrians. Pedestrians did battle using super human strength and endurance, walking in multi-day contests to determine the fittest and fastest in the land. To the victor went the cheers of tens of thousands, as well as a king's fortune. Does this sound too good to be true? Actually, it already happened.

The Earliest Years

Competitive race walking's roots trace back as far as 2500 B.C., when Egyptian hieroglyphics recorded the first written account of a walking competition. Similar evidence indicates that walking competitions existed in early Greek civilizations. These early contests were loosely defined. Many were simply go-as-you-please, long distance events, with competitors alternating at will between running and walking. But the sport has evolved through several incarnations since these times.

The Gambling Invasion

One of these evolutions involved betting large sums of money on walking contests. One famous example occurred in England in 1589. An English nobleman, Sir Robert Carey, wagered he could walk non-stop for 300 miles. Winning the bet, he set the stage for even greater walking feats. In 1608 he journeyed an amazing 2000 miles across Europe in 41 days.

The 18th Century

While long-distance feats by individual walkers certainly captured the public's eye, it wasn't long before head-to-head races were scheduled. However, there was a change in players. Noblemen weren't battling it out for glory. Instead they enlisted gladiators to do their bidding. The early walkers of the 17th and 18th century were often a nobleman's footmen. Footmen had a lot of occupational training; they walked alongside a nobleman's carriage and often walked ahead to ready affairs in the town before the nobleman got there. Though a far cry from the 5K weekend shuffles we are accustomed to, these early events mark the beginning of regularly held walking competitions.

The sport of pedestrianism came full circle by the mid 18th century. The second half of the 18th century saw individual walkers battling the clock in the quest for glory and riches.

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