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At Olympic Race Walking, A Novice Spectator Finds A Cure To Lochterrhea

The lead group in the women's race walk 20km averaged around 8 mph in the race's first hour Friday.
Bill Chappell
The lead group in the women's race walk 20km averaged around 8 mph in the race's first hour Friday.

"Ryan Lochte is too much with us," William Wordsworth might have written if he were covering the Summer Olympics in Rio.

Okay, I admit it: William Wordsworth would never have written that. But that's the sentiment that hung over Rio this week, as the temporary community that the Olympics creates every two years found itself unexpectedly distracted from its normal duty of watching talented and dedicated people introduce their dreams to Olympic reality.

Part of the allure of the Olympic Games is that they move at a steady pace. With 306 events over 19 days, they have to: Each sport, each athlete, each medalist, gets its time and moves on. But when that pace is disrupted – say, by a convoluted story that seems to spew new details every day – how do we hit the reset button?

Now that we know as much as many of us want to know about "LochteGate," I found myself struggling to hit an Olympic reset button Friday, to dive back into the actual and rewarding drama of Rio's Summer Games.

I wanted to return to that steady pace — and I was hoping to find it along with fresh air and something new that (crucially) was not also annoying.

All that and more awaited me at the race walk, where both men's and women's fields competed Friday along the coast at Pontal. That's the venue name Rio 2016 organizers gave a spot that, as I learned today, includes an unexpectedly spectacular view of the sandy Recreio Beach, where the massive Pontal rock sits just past the breakers (it's easily reached at low tide, I was told).

Steve Kay, of California, was among the spectators cheering on the women's race walkers Friday.
Bill Chappell / NPR
Steve Kay, of California, was among the spectators cheering on the women's race walkers Friday.

With Pontal's smooth brown shoulders looming above the course, the race walkers competed along a long loop of asphalt that was lined with hundreds of spectators. Cheered on by locals, tourists, and Olympic teammates, they raced up one side of the street and down the other.

And that's when I realized how refreshing this event, held about eight miles west of the Olympic Park, would be: There were no tickets. And for nearly the entire course, there was no security cordon. Here, the barrier that normally makes up "the bubble" around Olympic events didn't exist. Beverages other than Coke products were sold. People carrying chairs on their way back from the beach paused to watch and yell encouragement to the race walkers.

Within 30 minutes of arriving, I felt refreshed. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, when Wordsworth said the world was too much with him, he essentially concluded that everything's better when you're at the edge of the sea.

There was just one thing missing — and unfortunately, it was important: I had only the dimmest inkling about what in Sam Hill was going on in this race. I had been emboldened to come because I'd confirmed that race walking has only two rules. One requires contact with the ground, the other is about not bending the knee and breaking into a run.

All that had seemed simple. But after arriving at the women's 20-km race, I was seeing a blur of technique and style – and speed. Relatively early in the race, the field was already blown apart, with the leading group whizzing around behind a guide motorcycle. I've rarely been a fan of TV coverage of Olympic events, but some hushed commentary, some notable names, was needed.

Luckily, I ran into Jamie Costin, a three-time Olympic race walker from Ireland who's now a coach for South Africa's team. He was standing along the course cheering on South Africa's athletes — something he was willing to take a break from in order to talk to a newbie.

Here's how Costin explained the technique I was seeing:

"You naturally land on your heel, instead of in running, where you're normally on your forefoot. You land on your heel; you roll through the foot. Your knee is straight until it goes past the point where your body's perpendicular. And then your knee can bend, once it goes past that point.

And when you land on the ground, with your front foot on the heel, your back toe has to be on the ground."

"That's the rules of race walking put very very simply," Costin said, "and then you do that quicker and quicker and quicker."

Quicker, indeed. After the first hour of the women's race, the race walkers had covered 13 kilometers – good for an average of more than 8 mph over the hour.

To put that number in context, consider that a runner traveling at 8 mph can expect to clock a mile in around 7-1/2 minutes, according to Harvard Health Publications.

A top men's field, Costin says, can average around a mile every 6:10 or 6:15.

Race walking takes place on the line between walking and running. Athletes seeking more speed naturally progress toward a run, when both feet would momentarily be off the ground. A short instant of levitation is OK — but when athletes cross the line, they can get either a caution or a disqualification from the small army of judges who line the course.

When I asked what type of athlete does well in race walking, Costin said they're most similar to middle- and long-distance runners: lean, with good aerobic capacity and an ability to maintain pace.

"Most of these could be top runners, if they wanted to be," he says, pointing to the pack of race walkers zipping by.

If you want proof of that claim, Costin would point you to the men's 50-km race from this morning, which was completed in 3 hours, 41 minutes. That distance – 31 miles – is five miles longer than a marathon, he notes.

Looking at it that way, the race walkers "went through the marathon in just about three hours this morning" and then cranked through another five miles, Costin says.

The women's race we were watching had a thrilling finish, with China's Liu Hong — the world record holder in this event — powering to a gold medal in a time of 1:28:35. She was in the leading group all day, along with silver medalist Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez of Mexico and Lu Xiuzhi of China — who finished just two and seven seconds behind her, respectively.

Those were the women I'd seen earlier, whizzing around the course where fans had unfurled about a half-dozen Chinese flags. China's a power in race walking, Costin said. So is Russia, whose team isn't in Rio due to a doping ban.

Race walking is one of those Olympic sports that doesn't have a high profile in the U.S. but has a broad worldwide following. The media center at the Pontal venue was packed with journalists, and the news conference after the women's race was among the longest I've attended here in Rio.

Proof that the lungful of fresh air I was seeking had finally arrived came later, when I learned about the contested results of the men's race that took place earlier Friday. Matej Toth of Slovakia won gold, followed by Australia's Jared Tallent.

Canada's Evan Dunfee, who had led the race part of the way, finished fourth — but briefly held the bronze medal after Japan's Hirooki Arai was disqualified over the two athletes' bumping into each other as Arai passed Dunfee on the final lap. But Japan then lodged its own protest, the officials agreed, and the bronze medal went back to Arai. It took hours for the situation to be resolved.

Earlier, Costin had told me about the importance of the athletes' stride and focus — particularly in traffic and in the tight corners at the loop's ends. A mistake can either slow an athlete down or bring a disqualification, he said.

After the race, Dunfee said he lost focus after the contact with Arai — and that's what cost him the race, not Arai's actions. Citing his own integrity, Dunfee said he wouldn't be happy with anything other than fourth place in the race. He clocked a national record with his time of 3:41:38, but Dunfee decided not to exercise a final option to appeal Arai's reinstatement.

Evan Dunfee of Canada refused to use the final appeal of his fourth-place finish in the men's 50km race walk, citing his own integrity.
Bryn Lennon / Getty Images
Getty Images
Evan Dunfee of Canada refused to use the final appeal of his fourth-place finish in the men's 50km race walk, citing his own integrity.

Here's some of what Dunfee said:

"Not many people can understand the pain athletes are in three and a half hours into such a grueling race. I believe that both the Japanese athlete and myself got tangled up but what broke me was that I let it put me off mentally and once I lost that focus, my legs went to jello. Contact is part of our event, whether written or unwritten and is quite common, and I don't believe that this was malicious or done with intent. Even if an appeal to CAS were successful I would not have been able to receive that medal with a clear conscience and it isn't something I would have been proud of.

"I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life."

There's now a movement supported by many on Team Canada — including by Stuart McMillan, who coaches the acclaimed sprinter Andre De Grasse — to name Dunfee the country's flag bearer in tomorrow's closing ceremony.

The sporting palate, as they say, is cleansed.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.