To be quite honest, I doubled over laughing after I heard speed walking is an Olympic event. This is half because I immediately pictured a herd of middle-aged women clad in sweatbands and spandex pumping their arms and swiveling their hips, and half because, well, just about anyone can do it. I mean, really, how much blood, sweat or tears does it take to become a world-class speed-walker? By now, I’m probably a seasoned pro considering the amount of times I’ve rolled out of bed just minutes before class starts and hauled halfway across OU’s campus. Most of the time, I don’t even break a sweat, but you don’t see me competing on the big stage.
So, of course, I had to see it for myself. I hoped on a train and headed to Hyde Park. The walkers strolled past Constitution Hill, Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Monument—a magnificently historic setting for such a minor event, I thought. The first to complete 25 laps would win the title of champion speed walker. Now that’s one to put at the top of a resume.
It all seemed so ridiculous and outlandish until I stepped out of the station. The park was jam-packed, more animated than I had ever seen during my three-week stint in London. There was an unmistakable air of enthusiasm and anticipation surrounding the park and infecting its visitors, the kind also palpable at some of the most popular Olympic sporting events. Even though I had shown up 30 minutes before the race started, I would clearly be hard-pressed to find somewhere to stand. Maybe I mixed up the time. Maybe tonight was the women’s triathlon and I had completely missed the race walk this morning. All these people standing on railings, climbing up lampposts, holding flags and screaming at the top of their lungs couldn’t possibly be here to see these men stroll by Buckingham Palace, could they? A police officer smiled at me and said, “You bet.”
There were, in fact, a couple men in sweatbands, but the competitors were far more intense than the moms I had previously pictured. The athletes were fierce and focused, flying by me so quickly that I hardly had time to snap pictures. Even those trailing behind the pack could most likely walk faster than I can run.
Talking to the people around me, I felt a little guilty about not giving the athletes much credit. The hip-swinging sport was foreign to me, but to some nations, it was just as near and dear as football in the U.S. One woman traveled from Ireland to see her favorite walker compete and a group of Chinese waved their flags wildly in support of their defending champion. Some were just there to cheer on all the athletes, to be a small part of something larger than life.
I probably won’t ever be a fast enough walker (or runner, in my case) to qualify for the Olympics, but I did gain some perspective that day. Whether you run to the finish line or walk through it, somehow, you made it there.
Editor’s Note: Sergey Kirdyapkin, Russia, won the event setting an Olympic record with a time of 3:35:59. Australia’s Jared Tallent won the silver, while Tianfeng Si of China took the bronze. Ireland’s Robert Heffernan placed fourth.