The track world is in a state of upheaval over the publication of ridiculously difficult Olympic standards for 2020, and the elimination of the 5,000m race from Diamond League meets. But running events are not the only ones affected: race walking has also been impacted by similar proposed changes, eliciting strong reactions from elite race walkers such as Pan Am Games champion and Olympian Evan Dunfee.
IAAF president Sebastian Coe announced on Monday at the IAAF Council meeting in Doha that two race walking distances would be chosen from among the 10K, 20K, 30K and 35K for future Olympic Games. The 50K distance has been dropped from the list of possible distances. There is also a desire for equality between men’s and women’s distances, and new shoe chip technology is being developed to detect rule violations (i.e. failing to have one or both feet touching the ground at all times).
Coe defended the move, which was proposed by the Race Walking committee headed by 1980 Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion Maurizio Damilano, on the grounds that the shorter distances will be more marketable to “new and younger audiences.”
Canada’s Dunfee posted his thoughts on the process on Twitter before the vote last week. While acknowledging his bias as someone who makes his primary living as a 50K race walker, he noted that the 50K “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.”
Dunfee proposed a number of innovative ideas to improve what is offered at live events and how it is broadcast for television and streaming audiences. His suggestions included things like food trucks and a beer garden (similar to how summer track meets are staged in Europe) along with interactive activities such as run-jump-throw-type games for kids, a walking track, and treadmills set at race walker speeds, so fans can get a feel for for the sport. He also called for more knowledge and better storytelling on the part of broadcasters, which should be relatively easy with races taking place on a 2K loop.
“I think race walking’s best chance to continue existing is to position itself at major championships as the cheerleader for athletics… to promote athletics by creating a carnival-type atmosphere… and promote being active and healthy. I think that could be our niche and I think we have the tools to be quite successful in it.”