12th March 2019

IAAF approves racewalking changes, despite protests

The Council of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) yesterday approved ‘in principle’ a number of changes which it believes will make race walking more attractive to the media and the public, despite opposition from athletes. The 50km race walk will remain in place for both men and women at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, however will be discontinued after 2022, when two of the following events will be rolled out: 10km, 20km, 30km or 35km.

The IAAF will also proceed with the development of the RWECS electronic chip insole technology, which is designed to indicate when race walking athletes have lost contact with the ground. The technology is planned to be implemented from 2021 if tests, introduction and distribution of the chips is completed by the end of 2020.

The main bone of contention for race walkers is the removal of the 50km race walk from the IAAF’s list of sanctioned events. ‘The 50km race walk is an endurance race’, explains Stefano La Sorda, a race walker and creator of the LaMarcia.com internet site and SaveTheRacewalking.org, in an email. ‘The real race starts after 35km. The 30km race is a sprint race similar to the 20km race, and a 10km race has already been eliminated from the Olympic programme.’ More detail on this is included in the letter below from former race walker and US Attorney Paul DeMeester to IAAF President, Sebastian Coe.

In February, the IAAF announced that its Race Walking Committee (RWC) had made recommendations to the IAAF Council following ‘broad consultation’ with all those involved in the sport. In a PDF published by SaveTheRaceWalking.org, the RWC states that it began its consultation with athletes regarding the changes in September 2016.

‘The RWC is proud of the unprecedented efforts made to engage stakeholders (including athletes, coaches, judges, other IAAF Commissions and Committees, fans, sponsors, meet promoters, broadcasters, and others)’, reads the PDF (below). ‘This was accomplished in part through a worldwide bilingual survey (conducted in early 2018) that attracted input from over 1650 individuals and 100 IAAF Member Federations, as well as (more recently) through opportunities for input on a draft outline of proposals. The RWC carefully balanced the input from all stakeholders in arriving at its proposals for change.’

“Changing the story gives me chills”, said Maurizio Damilano, Chairman of the RWC which put forward the proposals to the IAAF Council, in an interview with La Stampa. “But staying still meant disappearing […] It’s not just about the distances. This sport needs to be revised, and this was the last chance to do it. Where are all these young 50km fans? Nobody is practicing anymore. The numbers speak for themselves.”

SaveTheRaceWalking.org’s campaign has adopted a symbol involving crossed arms with one hand open and the other clenched in a fist, in order to represent the 50km distance. It also appears to have received support from younger race walkers, as the below ‘Heel and Toe’ newsletter illustrates.

As mentioned, the RWC said that its proposals had support due to a survey involving 1,650 people conducted in 2018. ‘The number of participants in the survey is irrelevant because they launched it on the internet without relying on a predefined samples of people’, writes La Sorda. ‘It was conducted through an online platform (Survey Monkey) that allows administrators to change the text of the questions or even the answers during the voting’.

‘Although the RWC reached out to member federations, athletes coaches and supporters they only allowed a short time frame for these stakeholders to formulate any response’, wrote former IAAF RWC member Peter Marlow in a resignation letter to Coe, reproduced in the Heel and Toe newsletter above. ‘However many responses were still received with the majority in favour of retaining the status quo. Luis Saladie, IAAF Head of Competition Management, has since written to all members of the RWC and IAAF race walking judges outlining the proposals. He states that the RWC reached out some years ago but the consultation was only brought about after what was described as the underhand actions of the RWC was made public.’

In a survey conducted by SaveTheRacewalking.org, also using Survey Monkey, the vast majority of 2,113 respondents supported retention of the 50km distance. However, there were also allegations that there had been crude attempts to manipulate that survey in favour of the RWC’s proposals. 

‘One respondent tried to influence the results by voting 10 times, pretending via proxy server to be in 10 different countries, and always saying he/she was 100% in favour of the change and that the IAAF RW Committee was doing a fantastic job’, alleges the Heel and Toe newsletter above. ‘The base IP-address header of 108.173 (the rest of the ip address has been masked by Stefano) points to Alberta in Canada. Coincidentally, that is where IAAF RW Committee member Tim Berrett resides. Stefano has asked Mr Berrett to help us find the culprit.’

In its own words, the IAAF has tinkered with the racewalking distances to ‘help ensure greater participation at the developmental level, while also providing a pathway for the next generation of race walkers that encourages more athletes to continue practicing the discipline’. It said that the RWC ‘recognised that today’s sports environment is operating under different competitive pressures for athletes, fans, media and sponsors than was even the case ten years ago’, adding that its survey took into consideration the wishes of broadcasters.

‘Of course, the numbers in the 50km will never be what they are for the 100m’, points out DeMeester in the above letter. ‘The 50km is tough and technically difficult. Like the ski jump at the Winter Olympics; the pommel horse, bars and rings in gymnastics; and the pole vault, it will not attract mass participation. But the inherent difficulty of these events makes them worthy of conclusion when the world’s best athletes meet to compete.’

DeMeester also points out that the RWECS electronic chip insole technology will only highlight loss of contact, and not remove it from racewalking. He also argues that loss of contact is remedied by returning racewalking to longer distances, not shorter ones where speed is the main factor. 

Both sides remain convinced that they are doing the right thing to promote the sport. The IAAF Council meeting suggests that they are finding some middle ground. Although the IAAF Council implemented the RWC’s proposals, it did so ‘in principle’, and agreed to the possibility that a longer 35km race could be introduced. 

In a media conference following the IAAF Council meeting, Coe said that there had been an “spirited” discussion regarding the future of racewalking. ‘We don’t think that the decision taken in Doha was as clear cut as Coe had hoped’, wrote La Sorda in an email. ‘The fact that the final media release from the IAAF talks about “agreeing in principle” means that there was not full agreement. The changes will now not come in, if at all, until 2022. It was 2021 before and 2019 before that. We continue to push them back.

‘They are now considering a 35km distance, illustrating that their two hour forty-five minute limit for events was not a real consideration. Two years ago, we were looking at a single distance of 20km or a half marathon. Now we have two events guaranteed and the longer distance is creeping up. We have not lost yet.’

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