A walk in the (Hyde)Park

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.

Speed walker making his way towards Buckingham Palace during the men’s race walk Aug. 4. Photo by Kaitlynn Grady

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.

Men’s speed walking makes big strides with fans

HYDE PARK, ENGLAND – Despite the slew of sporting events taking place Saturday, Aug. 4, hundreds of spectators trickled into Green Park to catch a glimpse of 56 athletes race neck-in-neck along a 31-mile course—and walk to the finish line.

Though men’s speed walking is not traditionally included among the most popular sports in the games, a massive audience lined up to watch Saturday’s event.

Competitors zoom toward Buckingham Palace during the start of the men’s speed walking race Saturday, Aug. 4. Photo by Kaitlynn Grady

“I was at the women’s triathlon this morning, and it wasn’t nearly as crowded,” said Kevin Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts. “I just showed up and sat right on the railing without any problems. I figured it would be bigger than speed walking, but I guess not.”

The scenic background and free admission on the stretch near Buckingham Palace prompted high attendance, not necessarily the event itself, said London Olympic Ambassador Sue Lockney. She said the area, not the sport, is well known.

“It’s been like a sports festival here,” Lockney said. “We love to see people come out and enjoy themselves.”

Still, fans from all over were hard-pressed to find a spot to stand, climbing on railings, shimmying up lampposts and stretching along the streets’ edge to watch competitors loop around the Queen Victoria Memorial on Constitution Hill.

“We’re just here to enjoy the event because it’s available,” said Dave Randhawa of Chicago.  “It’s in front of Buckingham palace, what more do you want?”

During the race, competitors walked towards Buckingham Palace, circled around Victoria Memorial and traveled up Constitution Hill towards Hyde Park 25 times.

In the end, Chinese competitor Chen Ding took first place with a time of 1:18:46, followed by Guatemalan race walker Erick Barrondo and China’s Zhen Wang in second and third place.

“Its amazing to see all the flags from all the different countries, to see everyone together,” said Julia O’Leary of Cork, Ireland. “It’s great that all different sports are getting massive amounts of support.”

Even though the sport may not have a substantial following in England, Al Moralee of Kent, said it’s important to show support for athletes during all events, big or small.

“We just want to be a part of it, really,” Moralee said. “The weather’s been great, support for our athletes has been second to none, and it’s been so friendly. We just want to be as close to the action as we can.”

Walk, Don’t Run: A further look into Race Walking

Photo by Megan Hickok
Japan’s Takumi Saito makes his way to the front of the pack where he led almost half of the race.

LONDON, England — Outside Buckingham Palace and throughout Hyde Park, large crowds of all different colors and flags gathered along the streets. Fighting to get the best view, fans and spectators climbed light posts, stood on railings and sat on each other’s shoulders. When the gun fired, the athletes did not sprint down the straightaway. Instead, they walked.

Photo by Megan Hickok
A young Spanish fan clings to the lamp post to catch the walkers in action.

Race walking may be one of the most unique Olympic sports and an uncommon idea to many viewing the games. This sport may not reach the popularity of swimming or track and field, but the streets were filled with people fascinated by the event. Josh Peckle, 25, from Manitoba, Canada, laughed and cheered as the walker’s came by. He had just heard of the sport a few days earlier and decided to come show his Canadian pride and “get a good laugh.”

Peckle, like many surrounding the Queen’s home Saturday afternoon, has much to learn about this Olympic sport.

“Look around, most people are laughing because it’s hilarious. They’re just walking,” said Peckle.

They’re actually not “just walking.” It’s a technically demanding event. The rules of race walking state one foot must be on the ground at all times. Also, the supporting leg must remain straightened until their body passes directly over it. To avoid disqualification, these athletes stay low to the ground by pumping their arms close to their hips. About those swinging hips? They actually are a full rotation of the pelvis. This helps to maximize forward momentum. They take short, rapid steps to increase speed.

“Even though it’s going to take forever to walk 20k, I like that they keep coming by here and we all are frantically snapping photos,” said Peckle.

Actually, it won’t take forever because as with all Olympic events, these walkers are the best of the best. World-class walkers can average under seven or eight minutes per mile.

“I would never pay to come to this, but since it’s free, why not?,” said Peckle.

Race walk is one of many free sporting events. Men’s and women’s road cycling, swimming marathons, running marathons and triathlons provide free opportunities as well.

“I couldn’t name a single walker,” Peckle said. “I just stood next to this big group of Chinese fans who were yelling names and we tried joining along for fun.” 

Photo by Megan Hickok
A large crowd of Chinese fans cheer loud as they look on to Buckingham Palace to see the walkers.

They were yelling Ding Chen or Zhen Wang most likely. These were two of China’s favorites and they ended up pulling through for their country. Chen, 19, claimed gold with an Olympic record of 1:18.46. The country also took home bronze with Wang’s performance. Guatemala’s Erick Barrondo won silver.

“It makes you wonder how they got into the sport. I have never even heard of it,” Peckle said.

It is actually a track and field event. With its technique hard to master, many athletes see the challenge race walking brings. While most people at the venue were shocked to hear this was even an Olympic sport, race walking is not news. The 50 and 20 kilometer men’s race walking events entered Olympic competition in 1932 and 1956.

“I really wish I had gotten a spot near the finish. I can only imagine what that last bit would look like,” Peckle said.

China’s Chen, who had a decent lead with 2 kilometers to go, clapped hands with the crowd and waved and smiled toward cameras. At the finish, however, people were not talking about China winning its first ever race walking gold. Russia’s Valeriy Borchin, the defending champion, had moved up to second on the final stage, but  collapsed  with the finish in sight. A medical stretcher took him away minutes later.