The shortest distance in the international championship race walking programme, 20km races are traditionally held on a looped road course.
Race walking is highly technical and very different to running because one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Failure to do so is known as ‘lifting’.
The rules also state that the advancing leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straight until the body passes over it. Judges inspect the race and carry paddles with symbols for loss of contact and bent knee.
If a race walker is shown three warnings (paddles) from different judges, including the chief judge, it leads to disqualification. In some race walking events, a pit-lane will be in use and athletes will serve a two-minute time penalty if given three warnings. A red paddle is shown to a disqualified athlete.
The race order is determined by time.
Race walking dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first competitors were the footmen who would run and/or walk by the side of their masters’ coaches. The aristocracy of the day began to stake wagers as to which of their footmen would win a race – some of which lasted for six days! – and the sport became an increasingly popular professional activity during the 19th century, when it was known as 'pedestrianism'.
Race walking first appeared at the Olympics in 1904 with a half-mile race that was part of the 10-event ‘all-around championship’, an early forerunner of the decathlon. Individual races, initially over shorter distances than are common today, were introduced at the Intercalated Games of 1906 and, apart from the 1928 Amsterdam Games, have been a fixture at Olympic Games and World Championships ever since.
The 20km race walk has been contested by men at the Olympic Games since 1956. Women first competed in race walking at the 1992 Olympic Games, initially over 10km. They stepped up to 20km at the 2000 Sydney Games.
China has been one of the dominant 20km race walking nations in recent times, winning four of the six men’s medals available at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
At the inaugural women’s 20km race walk in Sydney, Australian athlete Jane Saville was leading the race and was just a few hundred metres from gold when she was heartbreakingly disqualified from the race. Wang Liping of China went on to take the gold medal.