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No. 3278:

Today, an odd old sporting event lingers on. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

One day I watched the end of a Summer Olympics. They we're running two lesser-known events - the fifty- and twenty-kilometer race-walks. They're nothing like Marathons. The 42-kilometer Marathon has been cast in stone since ancient times. Olympic race-walking didn't begin until the twentieth century. And both its form and its rules have been in flux ever since.

2004 Olympics Men's 20-km racewalk 
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

You see, it's a left-over of what was once a very popular public sport: Pedestrianism. Pedestrianism began in the late eighteenth century in Great Britain and Ireland. Back then, footmen of the wealthy had to walk beside their patron's carriage. They normally moved at the speed of a good healthy walk. So, lords and ladies began pitting their footmen against one another in endurance walks. Pretty soon, those games ran on for 450 miles, in six days' time. After work, fans would go to the local arena. They'd drink, blow horns, and cheer the walkers on. Meanwhile competitors staggered around the oval, late into night.

Period magazine drawing of a Pedestrian Contest

All that's a far cry from today's Olympic race walking. It began with a half mile walk for men alone in 1904. Distances gradually increased, and a women's event appeared in 1992. Now men and women compete in twenty- and fifty-kilometer races. They walk at around eight or nine miles an hour.

One of a walker's feet must always be in contact with the ground. But that's an oddly elastic rule. Both feet can leave the ground if they do so for a time too short to be caught with the naked eye. (That somehow reminds me of the precision - or lack of it - of baseball umpires calling balls and strikes.)

Speed didn't matter in pedestrianism. It was pure endurance. And it was hugely popular for a century, beginning in the late 1700s. What finally killed it was - ta-da - the invention of the safety bicycle. That's the bike with a chain, sprocket, and two equal wheels. Suddenly we had useful bicycles. And bicycle races quickly became far more fun than the tedium of men staggering around an arena.

An 1885 "Safety Bicycle" -- prototype of our familiar 20th and 21st C bikes.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

And, when bicycles spelled an end to pedestrianism, that grueling sport gave way to speed-walking contests. They, in turn, found their way into the twentieth-century Olympics. Then the Olympics began stretching speed-walking distances - three-and-a-half kilometers, then still longer walks - the form of those races has kept mutating ever since. But, for a season, champion walkers were national heroes. Children imitated their individual walking styles. People swapped the pictures of champions that appeared on cigarette packets. For a season. But then we found better games. As we shall surely keep doing - into centuries yet to come.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

See this BBC article about Pedestrianism. See, also, this NPR article about Pedestrianism. Note that I speak only of the 450 mile competitions when other distances were often used. 

See also these Wikipedia articles on Pedestrianism and Racewalking. Neither of these should be confused with Power walking

This World Athletics piece talks specifically about the 50-kilometer Race Walk.