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A brief history of racewalking in the United States

It is impossible to fully appreciate the sport of racewalking unless you have some understanding of its history. The following overview is based largely on a doctoral dissertation completed in 1989 by the late William Gordon Wallace.

The English heritage

"Competitive walking of man against man appeared sometime late in the 16th century or early in the 17th. It became the custom in that period for members of the English aristocracy to employ footmen to accompany them during their travels across country by coach. These were in effect servants whose duties included the carrying of messages and documents, hastening ahead of the family coach to make arrangements at inns for an evening's food, drink, and sleep, or advising the country house staff of the imminence of the family's arrival".

"Heavy wagering being a part of the excesses practiced by the nobility at that time, it was inevitable that masters began to match their footmen against one another in races. With sizeable sums at stake these noblemen increasingly sought footmen who could demonstrate speed and stamina. They were then trained as gladiators to compete in matches arranged over varying distances. Thus it was that a class of professional pedestrians evolved on the British scene".

"There seems to have been no serious attempt to define the rules by which these competing footmen were to vie against one another, custom decreeing that footmen keep pace with their master's carriages without actually running. Sometimes the expression fair heel and toe was used in an attempt to delimit the footmen's mode of progression. It was commonly understood, however, that they were allowed to trot, as necessary, to ward off cramp".

Competition between footmen gave way during the second half of the 18th century to men racing against time over long distances. "Pedestrians" (as the walkers were called) could win a very handsome fee for walking dozens - or even hundreds - of miles within a proscribed time. Side bets were, of course, very welcome.

One of the more popular goals involved covering at least 100 miles in less than 24 hours. Those meeting this goal were (and still are) called "Centurions". Another goal involved covering one mile in each of 1,000 successive hours (more than 41 days).

The early 19th century saw the return of races between men. Town-to-town events, supported by gambling, became quite the rage - even becoming the most popular sport in England for a while.

Pedestrianism comes to America

With their strong English roots, Americans were quick to import this new sport in the early 19th century. In many cases, an exceptional pedestrian would come into a community and challenge the best local walker to a race. Matches typically covered distances from a quarter mile to thirty miles, and drew crowds as large as 25,000 along the race route.

For a short while, local sporting clubs in large cities sponsored matches, but pedestrianism was generally seen as a game for the lower classes. While walking was the norm in such events, trotting and running were evidently allowed.

By the 1850's, newspapers had begun to report local sports feats, and interest in pedestrianism rose rapidly. It was a major sport in ante-bellum America, with victors often able to take home a purse equal to the pay received for working in a factory for 40 years.

While interest in pedestrianism subsided shortly before the Civil War, it rose dramatically after the war. This "golden age" of pedestrianism was due, in large measure, to the exploits of Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald and a long-distance walker in his own right. Weston stimulated great interest by walking 1,136 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in thirty days in 1867. An immense amount of public interest was based partly on the $10,000 prize, but even more on side wagers made by spectators along the route.

As a result of Weston's walk, communities began to build walking arenas and to install indoor tracks wherever possible. Each town had its local champion, and major competitions began to appear. American and English champions crossed the Atlantic in search of national bragging rights.

In the late 1870's, women began to cash in on pedestrianism with their own races. Competition between females drew large crowds, and promoters and gamblers took quick action to capitalize on the situation. Newspapers sometimes reported such events from an erotic (rather than athletic) point of view, but top female walkers also became a symbol of heroic, independent womanhood. In any case, races between women began to attract the attention of a society permeated by Victorian morality.

In 1888, Sir John Astley, a member of Parliament and sports enthusiast, helped create a "Long Distance Championship of the World" (more popularly known as the "Astley Belt Races"). One rule, however, helped bring about the demise of pedestrianism. Rather than follow the rule of "fair heel and toe", participants could "go-as-you-please". They could run or walk in any fashion. The Astley Belt Races covered six days and were very popular. In time, however, walking was phased out as running was phased in.

Reformers tried to clean up pedestrianism by creating genuine athletic events, but public interest dwindled, women's races quickly disappeared and professional pedestrianism faded away by the mid-1880's.

The modern sport of racewalking

The excesses of professionalism led, in part, to a growing interest in amateur track and field competition - primarily at private athletic clubs and on college campuses. Walking was often included in their sports activities. In 1888, an alliance of amateur athletic groups formed the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to coordinate amateur athletics in the United States.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed in 1893, and the modern Olympic Games were inaugurated in 1896. In 1904, an 800-yard walk was added as one element in the "all-rounder" event which was the forerunner of the present-day decathlon. The racewalk first appeared as a separate event during the unofficial "Interim Olympic Games" in 1906 (the only time they were held). Then, at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, racewalking was officially added as a unique event.

The rules of racewalking have continued to evolve during the 20th century. The "fair heel and toe" rule was upgraded in the early 1900's to require the knees to be straight at some point during each stride. In the early 1970's, that rule was upgraded to require knees to be straight when directly under the body. And, in 1996, the rule was upgraded again to required a straight knee from the first moment of heel contact until the leg is in the vertical position.

The administration of amateur sports has also continued to evolve. In 1913, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) was formed as the governing body of amateur athletics world wide. In 1979, the Athletics Congress (TAC/USA) replaced the AAU as the governing body for athletics in the United States, and, in 1992, TAC/USA was renamed as Usa Track and Field (UsaTF).

During the early part of the 20th century, racewalking failed to develop popular appeal in the United States. While American racewalkers enjoyed success in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp (third, fifth and eighth in the 3,000-meter racewalk; second and sixth in the 10,000-meter racewalk), the quality of American male racewalkers declined quickly thereafter. In the 1920's, American women essentially disappeared from the racewalking scene. Racewalking became more spectacle than sport as newsreel footage of walkers generated snickers and guffaws from the audience. The 1940's and 1950's were a low period for racewalking throughout the world.

Then, in the late 1940's and early 1950's, Henry Laskau began to lead a resurgence of serious racewalking in the United States. By the 1960's, American's Ron Zinn, Rudolph Haluza, Ron Laird and Larry Young were attracting international attention - and women began to return to the sport.

Older racewalkers began to surface in 1968 when the first masters track and field meet was held in San Diego. The World Association of Veteran Athletes (WAVA) was formed in 1977, to give masters racewalkers (men age 40+, women age 35+) an international forum for competition.

In 1977, American Todd Scully broke the six-minute-mile barrier for racewalking, a goal pursued by racewalkers the world over since the inception of the sport. In the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, there was a quantum improvement in racewalking times as 28 racewalkers bested the 1984 Olympic racewalking records. American racewalkers, however, found themselves falling behind.

The 1990's see increasing growth in the numbers of American's taking up racewalking for sport and fitness. Elite American racewalkers are slowly working their way back toward the top through better coaching, better camps and better training facilities (such as the Olympic Training Centers and the Centers for Racewalking Excellence). In 1992, women racewalkers were welcomed to the Olympics for the first time with a 10k racewalk.

Credits - WorldwideRunning.com thanks the North American Racewalking Foundation (http://members.aol.com/RWNARF/home.htm) for the permission to reprint the article "A brief history of racewalking in the United States" by Phil Howell. This article was written by Phil Howell, and first appeared in "Walk Talk", the newsletter of the Walking Club of Georgia, in 1996. Readers are welcome to reproduce this article in whole or in part, but the author would appreciate a reference to both sources (e.g., an article by Phil Howell based on "Race Walking in America: Past and Present", a 308-page dissertation by Dr. William Gordon Wallace). Comments should be directed to Phil at Phowell222@aol.com.


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