As is the case
with baseball, disputed calls sometimes result in fierce arguments. A few years
ago the AAU suspended John Allen, a national champion from Buffalo, for
spitting on a judge. Not long ago Chicagoan Bob Gray got his AAU card lifted
for a year for complaining too vocally about the quality of judging. Not only
does the blood of walkers boil when they get disqualified, but their anger also
rises when other walkers who finish in front of them don't get disqualified.
"I get DQs," says Ron Kulik of the New York AC, "and when other
walkers run and don't get DQs it burns me up."
At the 1964
Olympic Trials for 50 kilometers, Chris McCarthy was walking in a pack that
included Army Lieutenant Ron Zinn (later killed in Vietnam) and Don DeNoon of
the Southern California Striders, who holds the national indoor mile record. At
one point McCarthy attempted a burst, and an official following on a bicycle
shouted, "McCarthy, that's one warning on you!" Zinn and the others
complained to the official that according to the rules he couldn't judge from a
moving vehicle. The judge pedaled ahead, sulking, and descended from his
bicycle. When the group passed him, McCarthy was back walking cautiously in the
middle of the pack. "DeNoon," shouted the judge, "that's one
warning on you!" DeNoon eventually received a second caution and had to
leave the race. McCarthy went on to win.
Last year walking
rules were amended to permit judging from vehicles. Another change altered
American rules concerning cautions to conform to international regulations. In
the past, an American race walker suspected of illegal form would be given a
caution (a white flag) and if caught a second time would be red-flagged from
the race. Only in the last 220 yards could he be disqualified without prior
notice. Now a disqualification can come at any time without warning if three
judges agree that the violation is flagrant. But an individual judge can advise
a walker that he is about to lose form and could receive a caution.
walkers dominate the sport partly because of sheer numbers of competitors. Jack
Mortland estimates that the U.S. has a hard core of maybe 200 walkers, with
another 300 competing occasionally. Billy Mills entered a walking race several
years before his victory in the Olympic 10,000-meter run. Gerry Lindgren
reportedly once walked a mile in under 7:30. Many race walkers are former
distance runners who started walking either out of curiosity or necessity. Ron
Zinn switched from cross-country to walking following an arch injury. Olympic
team member Tom Dooley started walking after tearing both Achilles' tendons.
Jack Mortland, a 50-flat anchor man on the Bowling Green mile-relay team,
entered a walking race in the off season and though finishing far back won a
large trophy. "The most I'd ever won running the mile relay was a pair of
fingernail clippers," he says, "so I switched sports." He made the
1964 Olympic team at 20 kilometers. Jack Blackburn placed sixth in the
10,000-meter run at the 1956 Olympic Trials but felt that at 170 pounds he was
too heavy to be a successful distance runner. His father and mother also
In the past, race
walking provided a haven for mediocre athletes and broken-down distance
runners, but recently the sport has begun to attract better athletes.
"There's a weird kind of challenge to race walking," says Blackburn.
Race walking, however, still exists in only a few pockets in the U.S., and too
many participants must train and compete without adequate coaching or
The Russians, on
the other hand, have adequate coaching and thus their leading walkers display
impeccable form and rarely get disqualified. Soviet walkers almost always place
one-two ahead of Americans in dual-meet competition. The Russians use their
superior form to tactical advantage. A pair of Russians, confident that they
can stay legal, will attempt a burst right in front of a judge. If the other
walkers attempt to match the Russians stride for stride, they risk
disqualification. On the other hand, if they hold back the Russians will break
contact and probably leave them.
The judging of
the walks in the 1924 Olympics caused such a controversy that race walking
vanished from the program and was not reinstated until 1932. The Olympic walks,
which in the early Games had varied from 3,000 to 10,000 meters, eventually
were lengthened to 20 and 50 kilometers. The idea was that longer distances
promoted slower walking, which would be easier to judge. Pedraza pretty much
demolished that theory.
However, walks of
one and two miles have persisted in many large indoor and outdoor track meets.
In a mile walk an athlete will take 1,500 strides, and Chris McCarthy theorizes
that he may leave the ground on as many as 300 of them. In 1966, when Don
DeNoon dropped the indoor one-mile walk record nearly eight seconds to 6:10.8,
eyebrows arched throughout the race-walking fraternity, even though three
judges declared him legal. McCarthy wants to develop an electronic device
similar to the one used in fencing competition, where a touch causes a light to
flash. "That way," says McCarthy, "it might be possible to devise a
penalty system and do away with the need to disqualify a walker for a single
offense—a rule which tends to inhibit the judges." If McCarthy has his way
a light would flash on the walker's back the moment he lost contact with the
ground. The risk is that an indoor mile walk might resemble a pinball game.
Another plight of
race walkers has been a dearth of competent officials. Some years ago at a
National AAU 50-kilometer championship the officials were uncertain of the
course at the start of the race. The winner walked 32 miles, after which the
course was cut to a more accurate 31 miles for the second-place finisher. To
save time the rest of the field walked only 30 miles. On another occasion an
AAU walking judge showed up at a Chicago indoor race with a police revolver for
a starting pistol. When the gun sounded the field recoiled backward instead of
forward. "Afterward he was showing the bullet hole in the ground to all his
friends," says Jack Blackburn, who won the race.
At the National
AAU championships in St. Louis in 1963 no walking judges appeared. Ron Zinn
covered two miles in 14:03.6, erasing Henry Laskau's championship record by
almost 20 seconds. Chris McCarthy, who was then putting out a magazine for race
walkers, published a picture of Zinn finishing with both feet off the ground.
"Ron Zinn soars to victory," said the caption. After one indoor AAU
championship, sixth-place finisher Jim Hanley of the Southern California
Striders circulated a group of pictures revealing several competitors connected
to the ground only through the imagination of officials. One of the favorite
sub-sports of race walkers is to watch home movies of each other frame by frame
and cackle when they catch someone in the act of floating.