In a slight change from my usual type of blog post, I thought I'd write something about a sport I'm not that familiar with but with which I'm a little skeptical about. As I write this it's the last day of the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships and earlier on this afternoon I switched on the TV to see if there was anything on worth watching. Unfortunately there was no action in the stadium but the 20km race walk for men had just begun. With nothing else to do I sat down to watch. Now it's not the first time I've watched race walking, (I've seen it before at the Olympics and previous World Championships) but every time I do my mind drifts back to 1991 and a biomechanics lecture I sat through whilst doing my Masters at Sheffield University.
Maths, don't talk to me about Maths
I'll be the first to admit that I am no mathematician and during this particular lecture there was a lot of maths flying around. It was all equations, sine's, cosine's, angles and velocities and when I look back I wonder how I managed! Why I remember this lecture however, was not because of the maths but because of the subject, which I then found and still do find fascinating (how sad am I!). It was about the biomechanics of race walking and in particular whether it was possible to move at the speeds race walkers do with out breaking the rules.
Walking rules in a nutshell
The rules of race walking state that the walker must have at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times and that the big toe of the rear foot cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot makes contact with the ground. This differentiates walking from running and all sounds reasonable, that is until you start to walk fast.
The goal of any race is to reach the finish line in front of your opponents. To do this you have to move faster than them. While you're running this means having a greater stride length and/or stride frequency. Whilst walking however it's not so simple. Leg length and hip mobility constrain how far you can stride while staying in contact with the ground, which itself immediately places a mechanical constraint on how fast you can walk. Obviously there are constraints to how fast human beings can run as well but they are physiological as well as mechanical and not contingent on foot to ground rules.
Cutting a long mathematical story short
Given there are mechanical constraints to walking velocity it's possible to calculate what speed that should be attainable with a reasonable degree of accuracy and the answer is, somewhat slower than the speeds world class race walkers achieve.
Elite male race walkers reach speeds of about 15-16km/h over 20km which, if you've ever done any running, you'll know is quite brisk. It's fast enough in fact to give you a half marathon time of about 1 hour and 20 minutes which is not hanging about.
However as I've said based on the maths, it is virtually impossible to walk at these speeds within the rules and they're only achievable by momentarily lifting both feet from the ground creating some flight time. This means that race walking speeds can be only be achieved by running, albeit in a rather strange and ungainly fashion!
Whilst watching the World Championships today the top British athlete (and these guys are I assure you athletes) was disqualified for losing contact with the ground or "lifting" as I believe it is called. He was warned a couple of times and on the third occasion kicked out of the race by the judges. This apparently happens quite a lot in race walking and if I recall it famously happened at an Olympic games when an athlete was disqualified moments before she crossed the finish line in first place! The officials job is to look out for lifting, (which is essentially cheating) but only do so with the naked eye. They then make a subjective judgement and give the athlete a warning if they deem they're not walking. Three strikes and you're out!
And your point is?
The problem here is that according to the maths everyone's cheating and this can be clearly seen in slow motion. It also seems obvious to me from my view point whilst watching the tele, illustrated by the fact that when the British guy got shown the red card I was shouting at the screen pointing to everyone else's feet. What about the rest of them!?
The best athlete or best cheater?
The question this leads me to is does the best athlete win walking races or is it the one who gets away with cheating the most? Perhaps being unsporting is part of the sport? I have no idea about the in's and out's of race walking but suspect that most participants tactically cheat and the most savvy have a better chance of winning after all judges can't watch everyone all the time.
In my view if race walking is to be taken seriously, it needs to ditch the naked eye judging and employ some sort of technology to monitor technique. Allow some lifting but limit the amount. This gives the athletes parameters to work within, keeps everything fair across the board and means the speeds can be kept high. For the sport and for the spectators it also means theoretically that the best athlete should win rather than the one who gets away with the most cheating, although saying that, race walking has been awash with doping for years so perhaps it would be wise to deal with that first?
Walking or Running? When Does Lifting Occur? E. A. Trowbridge. The University of Sheffield 1981.
European Coaching Summit Series: Biomechanics and Rules of Race Walking. Brian Hanley 2012.