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Reporter’s Notebook: Racewalkers Run Into Problems

Up and down Santa Teresa Avenue they walked. But it was an odd kind of walking—arms pumping, hips swiveling, upper bodies straight and sweating in the late-morning California sun.

This is not the fitness walking that 31 million Americans over 55 do to stay in shape. This is racewalking, an Olympic event and a popular sport at the 2009 Senior Games as well. This particular race, held last Saturday on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, was the men’s 5K (3.1 mile) racewalk championship.

Nearing a 7-minute-mile pace

Here comes the winner: 53-year-old Jonathan Matthews of Helena, Mont., chugging along like a locomotive, back straight, gait fluid, legs straight and feet maintaining contact with the ground as they’re supposed to. He finishes far ahead of the pack in a time of 22 minutes 57 seconds, a sparkling per-mile pace of 7 minutes 24 seconds.

Yoko Eichel, 62, of Woodland Hills, Calif., was the winner of the women’s 5K, held earlier that morning, in 30:59, a sub-10-minute-per-mile pace.

Try walking those speeds at the local mall.

Thirty years older and 16 minutes behind Matthews, 80-year-old Tony Diamond of Washington, D.C., looked considerably less comfortable. A lean, silver-haired man with a runner’s physique, he was laboring, and his right leg was obviously bothering him.

Watching and cheering were friends and families, including Diamond’s wife, Irene, and a passel of officials, who sat in a row of chairs set up by the start/finish line in front of Stanford’s Roble Gym.

The officials kept track of each walker’s laps, and dutifully noted every infraction of the rules. There were quite a few.

A total of 136 athletes—54 women and 82 men completed the 5K that day. Of these, 36—12 women and 24 men (including Diamond)—were disqualified. That’s nearly 30 percent of the total field.

“Overzealous” officials

A normally low-key fellow, Diamond was particularly upset that out of 14 male competitors age 80 and over, nine (including Diamond) were among those disqualified. He criticized what he called “overzealous racewalk officials.”

And that’s how the most popular fitness activity among seniors morphed into the most controversial sport in the 2009 Senior Games.

Why were they flagged? The reason is because racewalkers go so fast—the world’s best can cover about 6 minutes a mile—and to keep them from turning the walk into a run, they must follow two rules:

• First, the walker must maintain contact with the ground at all times.

• Second, the advancing leg must be straightened as it passes under the hip as the competitor strides forward.

Fair enough, unless perhaps you’re an older athlete who has suffered knee injuries, as Diamond has. Like many older adults, he added walking to his fitness regimen after an injury—in his case, torn cartilage in his right knee that required surgery in the early 1980s. He then cut back on his running and started entering racewalking competitions, including the Senior Games.

But now, he and the majority of those in his age group, many of whom had similar knee issues, were disqualified.

Is that right?

Playing by the rules

“We realize the older you get the more difficult it gets to have the straight knee,” says Phil Godfrey, president and CEO of the Senior Games. However, he adds, “this is a national championship, and we adhere strictly to the rule of the national governing body. We’re going to call it according to the rules.”

“They’re right,” says Sal Corrallo of Rehoboth Beach, Del., a former racewalking chairman for USA Track & Field, the governing body for the sport. “This is a national championship, and you don’t want people who are properly walking to lose a championship because someone who finished ahead of them was not following the rules.” But Corrallo, who has judged the Seniors Games and many other masters and senior racewalking events, says there may be a way to bend the straightening rule.

“They ought to consider how they’re treating the older athlete with regard to that rule,” he says. “You don’t want to discourage people from racewalking, because it’s a total exercise, a marvelous exercise, especially for older adults.”

Perhaps, Corrallo suggests, “if the athlete has proper form, hits the ground properly and is not running, but has a very slight bend in the knee, they (judges) can look the other way. Maybe give the judges a little leeway on that.”

An educational mission

Part of the problem, Godfrey says, may be that some are not aware of the rules and of the proper technique. He recalls that in the 1995 Senior Games a third of the field was disqualified.

“We went on an educational mission after that,” he says, “because we thought perhaps it was lack of knowledge on the part of the athletes.” Clinics and workshops were offered at local and state events, and, Godfrey says, “we saw a reduction (in disqualifications) after that emphasis.”

Corrallo insists that kind of training should be continued: “Education is the key.”

While training could help, it may simply be that racewalking, a technically as well as physically demanding sport, may not be for every older adult, even those who regularly walk for fitness. To accommodate older adults who like to walk but don’t necessarily want to learn racewalking rules and techniques, Godfrey says organizers are considering a power walking event at the games. “We’re trying to figure it out, how we judge it,” he says, “and we’ll talk to some more people about it. That would eliminate the straight knee requirement.”

A Senior Games power walking event, he emphasized, would not mean the elimination of racewalking.

Whether or not there is a fitness or power walking event in the future, Diamond says he plans to return to the next Senior Games, to be held in Houston in 2011, as a racewalker.

“I’m a competitor type,” he says. “What I’ll do in the next two years is try and correct this problem as best I can.”

Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

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