Disqualification – the cruel fate of race walkers who get it wrong


In my previous article about race walking, I briefly talked about the threat of disqualification. It is one of the main things that makes the event so exciting and dramatic to watch. It can happen for different reasons but the effect is catastrophic for an athlete and their supporters. But after a while, it will happen to almost every experienced race walker.

In any walking race, there are official judges positioned along the course to ensure that athletes are complying with the definition of race walking – namely that at least one foot is in contact with the ground and that the leg is straight when it is on the ground and in front of the body. (This is Rule 230, which I mentioned last time.) Here is a brief explanation:

1. A judge believes the athlete is breaking the rules and issues a caution by showing a yellow paddle.

2. The judge thinks the athlete is still breaking the rules so they issue a card (known as a warning).

3. The number of cards for each athlete is displayed on the ‘naughty board’.

4. Three judges each give cards for the athlete so the athlete is disqualified. The chief judge displays a red paddle.

* (A new rule used in some races means that instead of disqualification a time penalty is issued. If a fourth judge gives a card the athlete is disqualified.)

Athletes don’t just start running – that would be ridiculous.

However, they might be DQed because they are trying to go too fast and they can’t maintain the technique at that speed. Alternatively, they might be so fatigued that they lack the strength to sustain it. Or they might not have learnt the correct technique in the first place. However, it is important to realise that the judges use their own interpretation of the rules and some might disagree about the acceptability of an athlete’s technique. This is why an athlete is only disqualified if three judges submit cards but the inconsistency is nonetheless one of the most frustrating things about race walking.

Of course, it is unpleasant to be DQed. (That is, unless a tired athlete is looking for an excuse to stop without dropping out.) All endurance events require a lot of commitment in physical and emotional energy and the flash of a red paddle means this is all for nothing. However, it is something all race walkers have to accept. After all, it would be just as bad to be beaten by someone gaining an unfair advantage. It is an essential part of race walking and it makes it dramatic and intriguing.

Yet there are some truly brutal disqualifications. In the 2017 World Championships in London, home favourite Tom Bosworth was disqualified in the men’s 20km walk just as he took up the lead. Even more devastating was the women’s 20km in the 2000 Sydney Olympics when the Australian Jane Saville was disqualified just as she entered a packed stadium for the finish, with a big lead and thousands of her countrymen cheering for her. The worst I have ever seen was in the 50km in 2012 and it was nothing to do with technique. When (now world record holder) Yohann Diniz collapsed part-way through the race he was able to lift himself up and struggle to finish 7th, only to be disqualified for pouring water over himself outside of the permitted area.

Athletes in all disciplines can fall foul of the rules, with false starts or lane infringements and the like, and all athletes try to push the limits of these rules. With the rules so fundamental to the event, race walkers must tread a fine line, almost like walking a tight-rope, as fast as possible. Put a foot wrong and you won’t make it to the other side.

NB. Race walking is judged to the human eye. Some race walkers might lose contact with the ground for such a short time that it is undetectable to the judges, even though it might be visible in slow motion video. To address this issue, there are proposals for in-shoe technology to detect loss of contact. In my personal opinion this causes more problems than it fixes and it would be far more practicable and accessible for judges to be permitted to use video replay, which is already so widely available.

Jonathan Hobbs has been race walking for over 15 years and also competes in road running and steeplechase. He is an athletics coach and personal trainer based at The Stour Centre in Ashford, Kent.

Visit his website now

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