LONDON — If just one athlete at the 2012 Olympics was going to draw the wrath of notorious hacking group Anonymous, what were the odds that it would be a race-walker? A thousand-to-one? Even higher? And yet that’s what happened on Aug. 8, after Italian Alex Schwazer, the defending Olympic 50k race-walk gold medalist, was banned from London because of a positive test for the performance-enhancing blood booster EPO. His official Web site was defaced with Anonymous’ signature Guy Fawkes mask and a message in Italian that included the line, “Doping kills sport, doping kills life.”
Doping has not killed race-walking — yet — but it’s pervasive in a sport that’s already defined by an accepted degree of cheating: While competitors are required to always have at least part of one foot on the ground, the best ones sneak in as much air as possible. (As one team manager told me, a racer’s biggest goal “is to not get spotted by the judges,” who stand on the course and hand out time penalties or full disqualifications for running.) In 2008, two Russian walkers, Valery Borchin and former world-record holder Vladimir Kanaikin, tested positive for EPO while under the training of coach Victor Chegin, who continues to head the Russian team.
After winning bronze in Beijing behind another one of Chegin’s pupils, Australian Jared Tallent teed off on Chegin, saying he was “like Trevor Graham,” the track coach (of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, among others) who received a lifetime doping ban for his role in the BALCO scandal. “[Chegin] had three athletes go positive and they all train together in the same squad, so it makes you think,” Talent said in 2008. “It is just suspicious.”
Tallent and Chegin were back at the Olympics on Saturday on London’s Mall, where one of Chegin’s new products, 32-year-old Sergey Kirdyapkin, won gold with an Olympic-record time of 3:35:59, while Tallent took silver with a personal best that was 54 seconds behind. He declined to cast doubt on the Russians, only saying, “I try not to focus too much on the other competitors.” When Kirdyapkin was asked if he could assert that all of the Russian race-walkers (who finished first, fifth and sixth) were clean, he said, “Yes, I’m sure that they are.”
For what it’s worth, Kirdyapkin appeared to be in superhuman shape. I watched the last few laps while standing next to a British National Health Service EMT, who was on standby to deal with all the collapsing race-walkers — four did not finish due to exhaustion, and about 10 others were taken off in wheelchairs after finishing — and he kept marveling over Kirdyapkin. “Look at this Russian guy!” the EMT kept saying. “Everyone on the course looks ready to die, and he’s not struggling at all. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was on his first 5k.”
If you didn’t know anything about race-walking before these Olympics — and count me in that camp — Schwazer’s doping suspension and the Russians’ shadowy reputation were more than enough to make you yearn for something positive. At least the crowd on The Mall was robust, with fans stretched out from Buckingham Palace halfway to the Admiralty Arch. As someone from the Australian contingent told me: “This is amazing. Most race-walks, the crowd is three men and a dog and someone’s mom and dad, pretty much.” And in this crowd was the best sign I’ve seen at an event, made by supporters of New Zealand’s Quentin Rew:
Q-Sain Bolt. Genius. Didn’t help much, though: He finished 30th, a good 19:04 behind Kirdyapkin.
Across the track from the Kiwis, I met a British man who said that while he wasn’t a race-walking fan, his father-in-law was, and would I like to meet him? “He’s the son of the guy who won gold in this race at the 1936 Olympics,” the man said, “and he’s got the medal with him.”
The doping cloud was lifting. Now this had the makings of a heartwarming encounter! I was soon introduced to Terence Whitlock, son of the late Harold Whitlock, a race-car mechanic turned race-walker who won Great Britain’s only individual gold in athletics at Hitler’s Berlin Olympics. Terence’s daughter, Karen Bryden, had given him tickets to the London 50k as a present for his 81st birthday, and now he was in the front row, close enough to catch beads of Kirdyapkin’s sweat. The Berlin medal was in a protective disc — Terence said it was appraised at $6,000 by Christie’s 12 years ago — and he was eager to show it:
“It took my father an hour longer to win than it will take these walkers now,” said Terence, who race-walked as a junior but instead chose a career as an artist and illustrator. “What I find amazing is that you can win a gold medal like Usain Bolt, in less than 10 seconds, or you can win one in four-and-a-half hours.”
Terence was five when his father medaled in Berlin, and didn’t get to see the race — they had no money for travel — but he remembers that when Harold returned, a newspaper reporter asked him about his diet, which he said consisted of a lot of Shredded Wheat. “And so the Shredded Wheat company got in touch with him and said, ‘We’ll give you a year’s supply of Shredded Wheat if you advertise for us.’ But he couldn’t do that, of course. He had to remain an amateur. So he never made any money off of it.”
The extent of Howard Whitlock’s Olympic spoils were a gold medal and an oak tree sapling. Hitler gave every champion from 1936 a sapling to take home, and Whitlock’s was planted in the yard of London’s Hendon Grammar School, which he’d attended as a child. It grew there for just over 70 years, becoming a 50-foot tall landmark referred to as the “Hitler Oak,” but in 1997 it was unceremoniously chopped down. The school said the tree had a fungal disease and was at risk of being felled by the wind.
Terence’s brother, Ross, saved an acorn from the Hitler Oak and planted it in his garden. Terence plans to get an acorn from that new tree, and grow one of his own. In a decade or so, two gardens in Great Britain will have monuments to the now obscure sport of race-walking. In London’s Olympics, there was just one 50k race-walker from Team GB. His name was Dominic King, and he was the last man to finish.